There used to be a quite popular film genre focused on larger-than-life hero-men, often dropped in exotic locales, overcoming odds on an epic scale through sheer force of will and their almost supernatural capableness. David Lean was generally the master of this form, with classics like Lawrence of Arabia and Bridge on the River Kwai, and it has mostly passed out of the popular view in the decades since his heyday. With this in mind, director James Gray’s The Lost City of Z is a nostalgic film, one that revitalizes this form for the 21st century without sacrificing any of its traditional scope and power.
Real-life famed explorer Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam) is a member of the Royal Geographic Society initially tasked with the arduous task of surveying the densely forested border between Brazil and Bolivia, a burden he takes up to make a name for himself separate from his disgraced father. While on this journey, he discovers bits of pottery, which he believes is evidence of a great hidden city in the Amazon that his native guide spoke about. On his return to Britain, with the assistance of his aide-de-camp Henry Costin (an unrecognizable Robert Pattinson) and the patronage of would-be explorer James Murray (Agnus Macfayden), he sets out on a manic quest to return to South America to prove the existence of this city, dubbed ‘Z.’ However, the obsession and long absences this effort requires drives a wedge between himself and his wife and child (Sienna Miller and Tom Holland).
The film is, before anything else, quite beautiful. Both the domestic pastoral scenes and the feverish journeys to the Amazon, plus a brief World War I interlude, are ravishingly shot by cinematographer Darius Kohndji, an ample follow-up to his impressive work on Grays’s previous film, The Immigrant. But where The Immigrant was quite intimate in scope, Z works with an epic canvas, tackling lush rainforest and grim warzones alike with ecstatic grandeur – with, of course, the superhuman hero Fawcett always towering in the center, not just existing in the jungle, but seemingly taking it on himself. It’s the sort of Homeric visual legend-crafting that great epics excel at.
Though James Gray has made his name with small-scale, New York-set personal dramas, The Lost City of Z is not as large a departure for him as it seems. Gray has been dubbed a modern classicist filmmaker, flourishing in what can be called ‘the sort of films they don’t make anymore,’ preferring the classic Hollywood storytelling methods to anything of the new school. While this film is certainly bigger in many ways than his usual fare, he makes use of his talents all the same – it has the attention to period detail of The Immigrant, the emotional intensity of Two Lovers, and the almost mythic tone of We Own the Night. Z is a natural evolution for him, and one that fits him like a glove; one would think he had been making this kind of film for years.
Though the film’s old-fashioned manner may not be for everyone – at two and a half hours and with a deliberate pace, it’s a bit of a heavy load – for those looking for grandiose, must-see-in-a-theater films with serious subject matter, The Lost City of Z is a perfect match. A confident and stylish effort in a classical vein, this film will satisfy those hungry for high-effort historical intrigue and drama.
The Lost City of Z is in UK cinemas from March 2017