As a child growing up in the 1970s, I fondly remember staying up late to watch televised Romantic tales of virtue and bravery like The Four Feathers and Les Miserables. Writer/director James Gray’s latest film, The Lost City of Z, revved my nostalgia machine to life while fully satisfying in its own right.
His previous movie, The Immigrant, failed to win big at the box office but earned lots of critical love. I may end up in the minority here, but I consider The Lost City of Z the greater achievement overall.
Gray succeeds with his latest through the melding of his considerable aesthetic and narrative gifts. He chose to use Kodak film stock, rather than shooting Lost City digitally, which endows his images with a pleasingly grainy appearance. The browns and greens of the South American jungle are lush and deep, enhancing the viewer’s feelings of immersion in the story.
The score by Christopher Spelman fits excellently as well, given the full orchestra treatment and aptly reminding me of the Romantic compositions of Bedrich Smetana and Ralph Vaughan Williams. In a couple of the film’s quasi-hallucinatory scenes, Spelman’s music shows the influence of Peter Weir’s frequent musical collaborator, Maurice Jarre.
The Lost City of Z is set in the early years of the 20th Century, when the English-speaking world thrilled to the real-life exploits of Ernest Shackleton and the colonial fictions of Rudyard Kipling. Based on David Grann’s best-selling nonfiction book of the same name, Gray’s movie spans 20 years in the life of Percy Fawcett.
A major in the British Army, Fawcett pines for a bloody battle in which to prove his mettle and gain advancement. Disappointingly, Fawcett is instead assigned by the Army and the Royal Geographical Society to map the boundary between Bolivia and Brazil, a region in dispute given its potential for conversion into vast rubber plantations.
Fawcett is paired with Henry Costin, an aide-de-camp whose military prospects have similarly hit a dead end. After an unpromising first meeting on their journey across the Atlantic, the two men come to respect and rely intimately on each other, as they confront snakes, biting insects, and nasty tropical maladies.
Fawcett and Costin also have their first run-ins with the Indians of the region, both as slaves to the rubber barons and as fierce defenders of their river territory. From one such former slave, Fawcett learns of a rumored ancient “city of gold and maize,” never seen by the eyes of a white man.
Gray’s film of Fawcett’s quest succeeds both as an adventure tale and a depiction of one man’s moral journey. As the former, The Lost City of Z is full of suspense and danger, with the possibility of fatal failure around every river bend. (And remote Colombia stands in nicely for the now overdeveloped section of South America that the real-life Fawcett once surveyed.)
As the latter, we believably witness the transformation of Fawcett’s self-absorbed ambition into something nobler. Through his dealings with a shallow vainglorious explorer, his respectful meetings with Guarini Indians, and his brushes with death on the battlefield, Fawcett’s rough edges are sanded down. Coming to realize that solely seeking personal advancement is an empty quest, Fawcett focuses instead on furthering human knowledge and showing the Indians to be the white man’s equals. As he beautifully posits it, “We are all made of the same clay.”
Gray also elicits excellent performances from his leads. Charlie Hunnam and Robert Pattinson attained their marquee status through hunky roles in Sons of Anarchy and Twilight, respectively. Here, as Fawcett and Costin, they dispel any doubt that they can play substantive roles. Likewise, Tom Holland – soon to gain greater notice as Spider-Man in the upcoming reboot – demonstrates as Fawcett’s passionate son Jack that he can do surpassingly more than sling webs against a green screen.
Among all the main characters, only Sienna Miller as Fawcett’s wife Nina is comparatively underdeveloped. So far, Miller seems typecast as the stay-at-home wife of strong male leads, as the missus in American Sniper and Foxcatcher. On one level, though, this is sadly and ironically fitting, since Fawcett recognizes the equality of white Europeans and South American Indians, yet pooh-poohs Nina’s longings to be more than a mother and homemaker.
Infrequently, the dialogue in The Lost City of Z feels too on-the-nose, as when Nina verbalizes her feminism or her husband advocates his inconsistently progressive ideals. However, Gray’s script is mostly well above average. For those desiring a life less ordinary, Nina’s charges to her son Jack – never to allow fear to determine your future, that no safe passages are guaranteed – may even inspire.
4 out of 5 stars
(Parents’ guide: The Lost City of Z is rated PG-13. Its quieter lulls may cause youngsters raised solely on action and animated movies to fidget, but for more broad-minded teens and adults, this film will reward patience.)