Finding a hitherto unexplored sweet-spot between the films of Francis Ford Coppola, Werner Herzog, David Lean, and Ruggero Deodata, the latest film from American director James Gray is a remarkable and triumphant achievement. The Lost City of Z is a journey into the heart of a man, and his fevered dream of discovering a lost civilization. Gray’s stunning and deliberately paced opening fade-in – figures on the banks of a river silhouetted by the flames they carry – sets an ominous tone.
Based on the bestselling 2009 book by David Grann, the film tells the true story of Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam), a dissatisfied army officer who as one of his superiors remarks “has been rather unfortunate in his choice of ancestors,” in reference to his father’s reputation as a drunk. Suddenly the lack of medals on his chest makes sense. Fawcett is in the service of the British Empire, where valour and mettle are meaningless in comparison to class and lineage.
He is reassigned from his post in Ireland, to the fusty and staid surroundings of the Royal Geographical Society. They want to send him to South America to assist in mapping the border between Brazil and Bolivia. This is not the career move he had in mind, but he is politely informed that success on this mission would go a long way to restoring the Fawcett name.
And so begins his journey. Gray breaks the film into four distinct acts, with three dedicated to Fawcett’s expeditions, and one to his time serving in the trenches of World War I. With his trusty companions Mr Manley (Edward Ashley) and Mr Costin (Robert Pattinson – buried under a bushy beard) Fawcett faces down the many perils of the Amazon, from the heat, disease, and dehydration, to the piranha filled river, and the cannibalistic tribes.
At the end of his first mapping expedition, Fawcett makes a small discovery that hints at something much larger and significant. Having restored his family name, and become something of a national hero, he risks ridicule by presenting his theories of an ancient civilization deep in the heart of the rainforest. Some call it El Dorado. He calls it Z.
His obsession with discovering Z leads him back into the jungle time and time again, whilst his wife Nina (an underused Sienna Miller) is left at home to care for their growing family. Where Fawcett’s obsession ultimately leads is a well known story, but I’ll not spoil it for those who don’t.
Charlie Hunnam, channelling Willard, Aguirre, and T.E. Lawrence delivers a career best performance. He’s a very interesting actor, incredibly charismatic, but I’ve never known an Englishman struggle so much with an English accent. All those years on American television have taken his soft northern tones and swilled them somewhere in the mid-Atlantic. But regardless of a few wobbly words he is terrific. By no means an obvious choice, he repays his director’s faith with a riveting and intense portrayal of Fawcett.
It’s impossible to overstate how beautiful this film is. As a technical achievement it is hard to imagine a more stunning piece of classical filmmaking will be seen this year. The cinematography, the beautiful locations, the incredible production design, and the sweeping orchestral score, make this a joy for the senses. Allied to Fawcett’s personal and soulful quest to find Z, this becomes a powerful and emotional cinematic experience.
Cast: Charlie Hunnam, Sienna Miller, Robert Patinson, Ian McDiarmid Director: James Gray Writer: James Gray Released By: StudioCanal Certificate: 15 Duration: 141 mins Release Date: 24th July 2017