The Lost City of Z is a world away from director James Gray’s previous outings, all set in New York. Loosely based on the story of British explorer Percy Fawcett, this is a meticulously crafted spectacle of a film. Sadly though the greatness it so clearly desires is just out of reach.
Percy Fawcett is a young Army Major stationed in Ireland. When Archduke Ferdinand visits, he along with several other high ranking officers goes on a stag hunt. Determined to use the event to make a name for himself, he quickly dispatches the stag but is passed over once more for promotion due to an ‘unfortunate choice in ancestors’. A year later his luck turns as the Royal Geographic Society approaches him to lead an expedition to determine the border between Bolivia and Brazil. Whilst there he hears of a lost city, far more advanced than anything in the Western world at that time, which he calls Z. This lost city causes him to return, again and again, even after facing WW1.
On a technical level the word masterpiece would not be misused here. Legendary cinematographer Darius Khondji yet again produces tantalising visuals, with every frame of the vast Bolivian jungle a sight to behold. The subdued colour palette he uses, full of yellowish green tones, is reminiscent of Apocalypse Now. In one scene, as the explorers travel down the river on a raft, one falls overboard, getting tangled in a net. The sunlight pierces the surface of the river as pirañas swarm the man, ultimately killing him, the gold slowly drowned out by the red of blood.
An unfortunate side effect of having such impressive visuals is that anything lesser in quality within the film is immediately and mercilessly exposed. Charlie Hunnam, who plays the role of Fawcett, is an example of this. Whilst this is by far his most convincing performance, and one that should rightfully earn him praise, it often lacked the emotional complexity needed during pivotal scenes. It does however show a capability until now unseen and one I hope continues into his next film Papillon.
The role of Fawcett’s right hand man and aide-de-camp on their expeditions, Henry Costin, was played superbly by Robert Pattinson. A surprising choice initially, Pattinson maintained a high standard throughout with his reserved style. Tom Holland, who played Fawcett’s son Jack gave a similarly brilliant performance, although with far more vigour. The first proper scene featuring Holland was explosive. After Percy announces to his children that he’ll, once again, be leaving on an expedition, Jack’s internal resentment towards his father for abandoning him is revealed. Tensions escalate as years of subdued feelings are released, voices quickly escalate into shouting. As abruptly as it starts, it finishes, as Percy smacks his son to the floor. If this film is an artist’s exhibit then this scene is the piece-de-resistance.
The main issue which I faced with Gray and this film is the lack of committal to his unconventional ideas. In one moment he’s triumphant in his non-conformity, such as the unusual narrative structure, shifts in tone and sombre ending, indicating the film is marketed towards a subset of cinema goers. Yet simultaneously it’s altered needlessly, most notably having all three major characters together during the Battle of the Somme, contrary to the actual story, for no tangible benefit other than having them wrapped up neatly together.
This film is a magnificent achievement, both for Gray and Khondj, and for the rest of the cast and crew. They have creates a raw look into the truly fascinating life of the British explorer. I just can’t help but feel that with more belief this could be something even greater.