By Matt Taylor
With stunning sets and a sweeping, twenty-year scope, The Lost City of Z harkens back to classic Hollywood epics, like Lawrence of Arabia meets Apocalypse Now. But don’t be fooled: as exciting as The Lost City of Z is, James Gray’s highly anticipated new film is driven more by character development and the thought provoking themes it explores. And we’re all better off for that.
Gray has an unusual talent that makes his films feel timeless while, tonally, falling very much in line with the current state of independent cinema. So, while The Lost City of Z may be an old-fashioned adventure, it is one driven entirely by the protagonist’s emotional journey. And that protagonist is Colonel Percy Fawcett, a military man obsessed with repairing his family’s tarnished name in the eyes of England’s upper class, circa 1905. Much to his dismay, he is not given the chance to prove himself in battle. Instead, he’s forced to explore the Amazon on a mapping expedition. But, on his first voyage, he discovers evidence that the indigenous people in the jungle, thought to be savages by the British, may have a civilization of their own. This film follows his almost twenty year quest to prove his theory and achieve glory.
As an adventure film, The Lost City of Z is quite satisfying. There are a handful of suspenseful action scenes, but they come in short bursts, and have a sense of realism to them. This doesn’t feel like a Hollywood sanitization of the real quest that Percy led his friends, allies and son on. It’s the tiny details about their voyage that really stick out during the film, namely the wonderful sound design that emphasizes every hissing snack, buzzing gnat and mysterious noise traveling through the trees.
Meanwhile, Darius Khondij’s brilliant cinematography makes the jungle a feast for the eyes, and keeps the action totally clear and easy to follow. On a technical level, this is the sort of film that demands to be seen on a big screen.
But, again, there’s so much more to this film than what meets the eyes. Percy’s desperation to find this lost city is just as compelling, if not more so, than the action set pieces. As played by Charlie Hunnam, Percy is a sympathetic figure we can root for, even with some major character flaws. We can feel his pain with each setback, and empathize with his quest for personal glory. But, as Percy makes his arguments to financers and fellow explores about the anthropological importance of his voyage, the film explores the legitimacy of his claims. Does he care more about personal glory? Is it right for him to abandon his family and wife to go on these voyages? And, if he finds the lost city, will he find the personal satisfaction that he’s been seeking for his entire life? The Lost City of Z doesn’t provide the audiences with answers to these questions, bunt instill explores all these possibilities, right up until the beautiful final sequence.
While this is very much Hunnam’s show, he is not the only actor that deserves attention. Sienna Miller gives what might be the best performance of her career as Nina Fawcett, Percy’s supportive wife who battles her own feelings of jealousy as she’s forced to set aside her desire for adventure in the face of England’s regressive gender roles. Robert Pattinson also completely disappears into his performance as Percy’s friend and fellow explorer, Henry Costin. Buried beneath a thick beard and glasses, Pattinson is certainly unrecognizable, but his transformation is more than skin-deep. He delivers a powerful supporting performance, and reminds us that, like his former onscreen love interest, his Twilight years are in the past.
If any performance doesn’t quite work, it’s Tom Holland, who has about twenty minutes of screen time as Percy’s son. He’s not terrible, but feels somewhat miscast, especially hidden behind an obviously fake mustache.
It’s a shame that The Lost City of Z was released in April. While it’s great to have such a fantastic film released in the first third of the year, a spring release seriously damages its Oscar chances come next March. This is the sort of technical marvel that deserves recognition. It’s also a smart, entertaining drama that both passionate film lovers and casual moviegoers can enjoy. Don’t let this one slip away.