Director: James Gray
Screenplay: James Gray
Starring: Charlie Hunnam, Robert Pattinson, Sienna Miller, Tom Holland
Runtime: 141 Minutes
So rare is the occasion that we might be able to witness the makings of a true classic of cinema, but James Gray’s The Lost City of Z is a feat of filmmaking the likes of which few attempt to achieve in modern cinema. A moody, authentic, beautiful and astounding work of technical and narrative ambition that uses celluloid in its most essential format, as its weaves visual storytelling via collective components and an ambience to its scope and tread.
Inspired by the life of British explorer Percy Fawcett, the film follows his attempts to locate the remnants of an ancient civilisation in the depths of the Amazonian jungle. This is a historical drama infatuated with the spirit of adventure and discovery, but constantly informed by the encroaching reinforcement of the dangers of the green desert that the Amazon truly is.
Carrying the impression of the written works of Kipling and Conrad, the film belongs to director and writer James Gray, whose passionate love with the foundations and elementals of 70’s cinema has never been more apparent or marvellous in execution. To say that the film’s construction is classical in nature is an understatement, this is the kind of filmmaking that only the boldest could carry off with such composure and artistry, and this is currently the best film of Grey’s career.
The manner in which the film is cut echo’s the work of David Lean, with lingering grace paid to the imagery of Darius Khondji’s mesmerising cinematography. He manages to grant a sense of beauty and unremitting danger to the wilderness as nature fights against the explorers from every angle. The film sinks into dreamlike states at times, such as their confrontation with a staged opera in the middle of the vegetation like a mirage. The narrative is formed through collective encounters with rubber barons (Frank Nero), piranha, sickness and spear throwing tribes of cannibals, all of which make up the whole of the experience with a strong focus on the endless narrative journey of its lead – including a necessary detour into his experiences at the Somme which test the physical boundaries of his arbitrary titles and desires.
Charlie Hunnam doesn’t seem like the typical choice for such a character, but his portrayal of Percy Fawcett is one of stoic conviction and deep emotional challenge. He is a man of stern capability and moral capacity, but held back from his peers and societal standing by simply being “rather unfortunate in his choice of ancestors”. This is his personal quest to prove his worth as a man in the earliest days of the 20th century, his reputation being placed ahead of his own physical and mental well-being by following the call of the wild back to the winding river over and over again throughout his life. He feels more at home in the jungle than he does in any civilisation, all the whilst trying to prove that progression is not only possible in such a savage landscape, but predates western civilisation and betters upon it.
The supporting cast is just as comfortable and informative of their roles, if not better. Robert Pattinson as aide-de-camp Corporal Henry Costin appears buried beneath a large beard and rounded spectacles, looking like a Hergé illustration come to life. Pattinson is at his best when underplaying, and he practically disappears into his spirited role while bringing so much likability to his lonesome figure. Sienna Miller delivers a career-best performance as Nina Fawcett, the wife at home who must remain as such despite her desires to follow her husband into the unknown. It’s a bold and brilliant performance even given her position in what might otherwise feel like a maligned role for the women of its world and time. While Tom Holland as the oldest son Jack comes into his own by the third act, as the bond between father and son decays, evolves and blossoms during Percy’s extended absences from their lives.
The film looks and sounds amazing, with Christopher Spelman‘s score thriving in the midst of its images, as well as a mix of perfectly placed works from the likes of Strauss, Stravinsky and Beethoven to name a few. Despite its influences this feels entirely of itself, told in such a breathtakingly paced and eloquent visual manner, with concepts such a destiny allowing the film to unravel like a vision as Fawcett struggles to find his place in the world – and ending with an awe-inspiring final image as the wilds further encroach on the reality of a supposedly civilised world.
The Lost City of Z is mesmeric cinematic magic; timeless in its faultless construction and a powerful piece of lasting storytelling.