by Jake Triola
James Gray’s latest, The Lost City of Z, is a bold attempt at hearkening back to perilous jungle-adventure classics. Truthfully, it is executed with great dignity. It comes with its own set of Amazonian horror stories, that plagued production, which also terrorized its influences, Aguirre, The Wrath of God, Apocalypse Now, and the likes. The director has described shipping the film by boat without getting to watch dailies, having to avoid flooding rivers, and dealing with the expected—“100-degree temperatures, 100% humidity, and insects, crocodiles, snakes, spiders, and all that.”
The story is an adaptation of David Grann’s 2009 novel about the life of Percy Fawcett; an expansion of the article he wrote for the New Yorker. In a process that took about seven years, it slowly turned into a feature film. It carefully details Fawcett’s ambition to find what he believed to be an ancient lost city, in a time when exploration had taken the back seat to make room for industry.
A film very focused on capturing the visuals of the jungle, The Lost City of Z looks marvelous with Darius Khondji (Amour,Okja) working alongside Gray behind the camera. Despite its golden glow and assured storytelling, however, its picture and tale never quite meet in the harmonious, visceral way that’s expected in a movie like it. It’s bountiful in drama and emotion, but lacks the poetry of, say, Fitzcarraldo. I believe that Percy Fawcett is a man of unbelievable dreams, but I do not feel them myself.
Though Charlie Hunnam carries the lead with the authenticity and vibrancy that comes with a man obsessed with exploration, it’s his supporting actors that move the story forward most effectively. Robert Pattinson, who has recently taken on smaller but more immersive roles, shines as Fawcett’s quietly jittery aide-de-camp, Mr. Costin, a man always ready to go further without thought. I only wish I could’ve seen more of him. Additionally, Sienna Miller gives an excellent performance as Fawcett’s wife, Nina, a woman of immense understanding and unconditional love for her family. Also, Tom Holland portrays Fawcett’s son, Jack, with true honesty in conflict toward his father.
The film chooses to focus on Fawcett’s life story and does so generally very well, but with this choice comes a two-hour and twenty-minute runtime that, bizarrely, feels rushed. The viewer quickly gets into a rhythm of joining Fawcett on an epic journey, then returning home to socialize with some English officers, then going back out into the great unknown, then returning home to tend to his family, and so on. If it had, alternatively, focused on one specific aspect of one of Fawcett’s many ventures, it may have more tactfully submerged its audience.
What’s moving about the film is its honest depiction of the struggles that come with passion. Percy Fawcett’s family is constantly put on hold and, as a result, his son hates him for it. As Jack grows older and identifies with his father’s aspirations, however, he begins to love him and is eager to join in on the madness. It’s a unique take on the family drama that occurs as a natural part of the human experience. Percy’s obsession is for something truly grand and wild—something that is, to him, worth fighting for. In the end, is he really noble for believing so fully in the impossible dream of finding his lost city? The film ends with this question muddily interrupted, as written facts anyone could Google close it out. Despite its shortcomings, The Lost City of Z is a finely crafted film. Gray and crew certainly shot for the moon and landed somewhere—though I’m not sure exactly where—among the stars.