Writer-director James Gray is one of our finest unsung artists, and his brilliant latest, The Lost City of Z, is deservedly the picture to really bring his craftsmanship into the fold. Simultaneously grand and intimate, thanks to an expansive scale populated by profoundly rich characters, this is an existential voyage into the heart of desire, danger, and ultimately, discovery.
Charlie Hunnam delivers a career-best performance as Colonel Percival “Percy” Fawcett, the English explorer who dedicated his life to uncovering the secrets of an ancient civilisation, buried in the uncharted depths of the Amazonian. The initial desire to depart from sanctuary, leaving his beloved wife Nina (Sienna Miller), and infant son for the lengthy tour ahead, is to claim the decorated honour he has long deserved; the redemption of his family name. However, following the initial quest, Fawcett decides that mapping the native lands is no longer the primary goal, rather finding a long lost city, of which he names Z (pronounced “Zed”). This mysterious, mythical dwelling perhaps predates Christianity, and locating and confirming its existence will help render the tribespeople who reside there as far more than “savages”, as the British continue to cruelly label.
Adapted from David Grann’s source material of the same name, Gray translates the pages into a cinematically ravishing, spiritually absorbing odyssey. At 140 minutes, The Lost City of Z maintains a purposeful and patient approach to drama – occasionally a little too so – but it is difficult to imagine a version lacking any of the frames he provides. His fluid and controlled direction is quite frankly marvellous, building sequences of splendour and soul, yet always maintaining a primitive focus on his central subjects. Gentle panning shots and vast wide angles really emphasise the mammoth possibilities of Fawcett’s mission, whilst dingy, suffocatingly tight close-ups beautifully crank up the vulnerabilities such snooping can muster. Gray’s lens, paired with Darius Khondji’s exquisite photography, helps transport the spectator to this fantastically accomplished New World. Aquatic moments ripple with silent beauty, whilst pea-green foliage quilts the many treks and trails Fawcett’s expedition ventures through.
Despite The Lost City of Z being a leisurely paced adventure, the tempo is accelerated by a handful of frantic scenes, all of which are thick with tension and anxiety. An initial attack upon the river, in which defensive tribespeople hurl spears and shoot bamboo darts, leads to a fateful dip in the rushing waters below, alive with gluttonous piranhas, hungry from their next victim. Elsewhere, Fawcett and his crew find themselves in the company of the local people, who just so happen to be cannibals, as the camera swoops over a blackened corpse, ripped from limb-to-limb, as it lay charcoaled and decrepit upon flame. This may be a landscape of much majesty and awe, but peril is at every turn; be that attacks from the indigenous or the many creatures which prowl in the shrubs, the merciless diseases and ills which linger within air, sea, and shore, or the sordid human conditions that are bound to defeat the many: starvation, dehydration, psychological weakness.
The collective cast here is sensational. As previously mentioned, this is the best we’ve ever seen Hunnam; a star-making performance before his leading role in Guy Ritchie’s King Arthur: Legend of the Sword this summer. His Fawcett is a man of much emotional and contextual complexity. He longs for Z – to discover the land, to underpin its history – and he is willing to sacrifice everything to attain it. The restrictions such a goal has upon his family is turbulent, and Gray’s characterisation expertly delves into these issues. We see Fawcett as both a revolutionary, and an egomaniac. He is selfless to the Amazonian people, and to his loyal men, but he is selfish towards his wife, and their ever-growing family, as Nina bears an addition child following each of his returns home. The more he departs, the more he fragments rapport, and the respect, of his offspring. Hunnam commands the screen with this layered, sobering portrayal, and long may such work of this nature continue. Miller, and Tom Holland are also excellent in their slighter, yet undoubtedly valid roles, as is Robert Pattinson, who often steals the show as Fawcett’s loyal companion and fellow explorer, Henry Costin. This eloquent and reserved screen turn from the young actor is alive with potency and finite power, often erupting in moments of real beauty and occasionally, wry humour.
Equally impressive as the performers is the costume and set designs, both of which ring true to their 1910s setting. A key sequence – in which Fawcett explains to the many naysayers at the Royal Geographical Society that there is a lot more to Amazonia than merely jungle – unfolds within an environment of pure realism. His evidence of human existence and activity – a selection of broken pottery, all inscribed with ancient insignias – is laughed off by the many. “Pots and pans,” they roaringly bellow and cheer, jeering at the man upon the podium. As excellent as the dialogue delivery and tension growth in this scene is, the attention to set construction is the real star. Gray’s stillness and restraint allows the scene to unfold naturally, and consequently we as the spectators feel part of the rowdy lecture.
The Lost City of Z is a glorious work, from a remarkable visionary. This enveloping, thematically tactile portrait of man’s unquenchable thirst is both thrilling and earnest in equal measure; echoing, and occasionally bettering, the great works of yesteryear in the process.
The Lost City of Z is out now in UK cinemas.