The Lost City of Z (2017)
Dir.: James Gray
Harkening back to discovery-based films of years past would seem like a box office death sentence in the 2017 cinematic landscape, but this did not stop James Gray from filming The Lost City of Z, the true story of a persistent twentieth-century explorer who went to great lengths to prove to his peers that an ancient civilization in Africa existed. Though this type of film is commonplace in festivals and in more selected screenings, Amazon Studios took a risk with Gray’s newest work, as they have released it into theaters this past weekend. Though this film follows up his previous outing, the under-appreciated and under-viewed film The Immigrant, The Lost City of Z is an entirely different beast with a much larger scope and a much grander, more universal theme at its core: every human desires and deserves to have a shot at legacy. The audience follows explorer Percival Fawcett as he journeys into uncharted jungles and into dangerous dwellings, meeting with savage natives, dangerous illnesses, and various other perils along the way. It’s an invigorating historical epic that manages to triumph in most of its goals, with just a few little bumps along the way. With a great cast, beautiful cinematography and a sprawling sense of ambitious direction, James Gray and Co. imbue The Lost City of Z with a timeless, respectable sense of wonderment.
The narrative of the film takes its time to set up the historical context as well as the character motivations of Fawcett, his family, and his crew. Fawcett, considered a hack and a loon by many of his peers, agrees to undertake a dangerous expedition, where he finds evidence of a previous civilization. This character is portrayed by Charlie Hunnam, known mostly for playing the lead role in the dark biker drama Sons of Anarchy. Here, he plays quite the opposite role, but he is no less charismatic as a 20th century explorer, with the persistence and the will to follow through on expeditions that inspire just as much as they strike fear into other explorers with less gusto. His performance carries the film, and he provides a highly sympathetic character who is easy to root for. Hunnam’s charms that he has shown in previous material work a different kind of magic here, and the result is, in my opinion, Oscar-worthy. Sienna Miller also provides a performance that’s easy to acclaim, as his stay-at-home wife whom he must emotionally contend with before going on each expedition. This is a role Miller must have down to perfection by now, after playing the doting wife in films such as American Sniper and Foxcatcher, but she is no less captivating here. Other supporting performances by fellow British actors, many of whom were almost unrecognizable until I IMDb’d them, provided similarly compelling portrayals, but the two leads overall carry most of the film’s scenes.
The pacing of the narrative is quite slow, as the film builds up Fawcett’s accomplishments, starting from when he served as cavalry in the British military, up until his most profound accomplishments many years later. It’s a two-and-a-half hour behemoth of a film that promises a worthwhile tale through its gratuitous character development and historical retelling, and for the most part, it delivers on this promise. With that being said, there are some detours that Gray takes along the way, mostly involving scenes in England, away from Fawcett’s expeditions, that feel like they could have been condensed and edited a little bit better. The beginning setup also takes great lengths to establish Fawcett, which is appreciated, as his family history is necessary with imbuing the film with its main theme of achieving a worthy legacy, but the prologue before the first expedition could have been trimmed by several minutes. At times, the film feels like it is too ambitious for its own good, and while Gray never succumbs to full on cinematic pretension that contemporary arthouse directors often suffer from, it does feel like a peeling back of some of the character-building scenes could have assisted in moving the story along at a quicker pace. There’s an argument to be made that the scenes in England only add further historical and emotional context to Fawcett’s inherent persistence in finding his lost city, but I believe the kind of audience that this film caters to would have gotten that point across within the first couple scenes in England, much less the subsequent half-dozen or so.
As a film, The Lost City of Z’s scope is grand, and the scope of the writing is aided by gorgeous cinematography from DP Darius Khondji. Khondji proves to be one of the heroes of the film, as his camerawork provides dense texture, especially in the scenes that take place in the Congo. There is one scene in the movie that I won’t spoil involving a certain military battle that I thought belonged in a different film rather than this one, but the battle scene itself was intense and gripping thanks to Khondji’s camerawork, combined with the score. Sonically, Gray imbues most of the film with fantastic sound editing, with an orchestral score only coming in briefly to accentuate the mood of key scenes of character development. The musical score used in this film seems to combine the contemporary minimalist style with a few instances of ‘60s Hollywood flare, obviously inspired by films like Lawrence of Arabia and Spartacus, though the music is not as domineering over the visuals here. The score combined with the visuals provide a level of immersion that, at certain times, gives films like The Revenant a run for their money. Z is a technical showcase that accentuates James Gray as an auteur, as he yet again shows that he has a knack for displaying period piece filmmaking with all the concessions that modern techniques can provide to inherit the quality of the modern cinematic experience. My only complaint with the technical aspects lie in a couple of editing and continuity errors that I found toward the second act. There were scenes of random characters appearing out of nowhere and some other minor instances of narratively disorienting filmmaking with time skips that the random moviegoer probably would not notice, but which I found unfortunately jarring.
The Lost City of Z is a film to be admired for its craftsmanship and its performances, and even if it’s not the most action packed historical piece, it’s well worth recommending. James Gray and Amazon Studios are to be commended for bringing this kind of film to the big screen, in an era where niche films such as this often flounder and die at the box office. Not only is this a beautiful film to look at--it's easily one of the most gorgeously shot and performed ones so far this year--it also tells an interesting true story about a real life explorer whose convictions brought him closer to a universal truth: we’re all searching for something lost, whether it be a city or a broader sense of purpose or direction. Some people find this purpose in work or school, and some find it in church. Percival Fawcett found it in exploring uncharted lands, discovering native cultures, and going on the expeditions that no one else would dare travel. For this, his legacy lives on to this day, and his efforts have not only led to new discoveries and landscapes now charted, but also to inspire other fellow hopeful pathfinders to reveal their own truths.