Charlie Hunnam in The Lost City of Z
It’s a familiar refrain that Hollywood should get back to the way it was in the 1970s, when great movies with strong authorial voices were also blockbusters. If the entire world actually believed that, however, James Gray wouldn’t be in the position he’s in now.
Of all the American filmmakers currently working, Gray has the oeuvre that most closely matches that of a major ’70s director like Coppola, Altman or Scorsese. It’s certainly most obvious from his early films, which were hard-boiled, down-to-the-ground crime thrillers that pretty explicitly doffed their caps to the previous generation by casting ’70s icons like Faye Dunaway, James Caan and Robert Duvall. Gray makes films that are both steeped in traditional American films – not “weird” per se, but not traditionally mainstream – and given a certain arthouse flair that makes him a favourite of European critics.
That James Gray is considered a quintessentially American filmmaker almost everywhere except in America is not particularly surprising; that Gray has made a film that feels so personal yet so far removed from this idea of the quintessential American experience might be. The Lost City of Z is ostensibly based on fact, though it takes many liberties and assumes an ending for a story that has none. It’s a film that feels both epic and intimate, a throwback to a time where filmmakers were given free rein to make idiosyncratic films that also doubled as adventure films – but don’t go looking for retro signifiers here.
Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam) is a British military officer tasked with leading a small expedition into uncharted South American territory for the purpose of mapping out waterways. Although reluctant to leave his wife (Sienna Miller) and child behind, Fawcett nevertheless accepts the task in order to boost his faltering reputation in the military (one mostly garnered through no fault of his own, but rather by his late father’s alcoholic dalliances). Accompanied by his second-in-command Costin (a nearly unrecognizable Robert Pattinson), Fawcett takes a first trip to the Amazon that proves gruelling but inspiring when he discovers relics and bits of pottery suggesting that the “jungle savages” who inhabit the region and are so harshly looked down upon by higher-ups may actually be significantly more advanced than anyone has imagined.
Fawcett devotes the rest of his life to proving the existence of the Lost City of Z, returning time and time again to the jungle with the increasingly far-fetched hope of proving the existence of civilization where none is thought to exist.
The most obvious analogue here would be Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo. Both films are similarly concerned with obsessive pursuits in the Amazonian jungle. There’s even a scene where Fawcett and his men stumble upon a makeshift opera erected in the jungle by a rubber baron (Franco Nero) that would fit perfectly into Herzog’s oeuvre. Both Gray and Herzog seem fascinated with this idea of all-encompassing obsession, their characters inhabited by an oft-inflated sense of dedication to an ungraspable concept.
Fawcett isn’t quite as wild-eyed as a Herzog protagonist – he’s a stiff-upper-lip British type but rather progressive considering the time and place, yet even that has a breaking point. Although he considers his wife an equal and goes out of his way to make this clear, he finds all the excuses in the world not to have her come along on his expeditions. When an oafish would-be explorer (Angus Macfayden) tags along for an expedition, Fawcett accepts only to be stuck with a crybaby who puts his men’s lives in peril.
Of course, it’s a little risky to make a film about explorers and colonial pursuits in 2017. Explorers are no longer treated with the hushed reverence they may have had even 50 years ago, and it’s a razor-thin line between honesty and exploitation in the depictions of situations that are generally much shittier for one group than the other.
The Lost City of Z spends as much time in England as it does in the jungle and traces a none-too-scintillating portrait of the upper-crust intelligentsia that controls the purse strings. When Fawcett is forced to make his case for a second trip to the Amazon, he has to face a jabbering mass of booing, chattering blowhards who won’t let him place a word sideways. Similarly, Fawcett is eager to return to the Amazon before the Americans (and their guns!) get there. While hardly a saintly altruist, Fawcett nevertheless embodies an interesting and rarely portrayed anachronism.
The Lost City of Z is also a cracking adventure film, owing in large part to Gray’s painterly eye and his grounded sense of tension. Never one to succumb to bombast, Gray has a matter-of-fact approach to material that means that even something as gory as a piranha attack doesn’t devolve into disaster-movie theatrics. Hunnam and (particularly) Miller have never been better. Were this film coming out in December and not saddled with the peculiar brand of disinterest that Gray usually garners, Miller’s performance would be Oscar-worthy. As it stands, The Lost City of Z is just one of the best movies of the year thus far. ■
The Lost City of Z is in theatres now. Watch the trailer here: