**** out of ****
(for violence, disturbing images, brief strong language, and some nudity)
Released: April 21, 2017
Runtime: 141 minutes
Directed by: James Gray
Starring: Charlie Hunnam, Robert Pattinson, Sienna Miller, Angus Macfadyen, Ian McDiarmid, Tom Holland
If Indiana Jones was taken seriously, with more philosophical ambition than action-packed set-piece ingenuity, you’d get something like The Lost City of Z.
In fact, combine the DNA of Indy with The Mosquito Coast (a polar opposite kind of Harrison Ford movie) and The Lost City of Z would be its cinematic love child.
Based on a true story set in the early 20th Century (as documented by David Grann in his award-winning book), it’s about the decades-long series of expeditions to find El Dorado, the fabled lost civilization of the Amazon.
This brooding, considered dramatization is deceptively powerful, both in emotional resonance and visual grandeur, but if its lackluster showing at the 2017 spring box office is any indication – punctuated by zero buzz during the 2017 awards season – The Lost City of Z is in danger of being a lost masterpiece as well.
Of course, critics like me are partially to blame.
I wasn’t particularly absorbed by its slow, pensive tempo when I first saw it during its theatrical run. It’s a departure for director James Gray, the first non-New York film of his under-appreciated career; his previous films were not only urban but far more visceral, in both pacing and psychology.
Obsession has always been a core theme for Gray, intensely so (The Immigrant and Two Lovers make impacts at gut levels), which is why The Lost City of Z – also about obsession – comes off surprisingly subdued. Expecting one kind of tone from Gray but getting another muted my initial impression.
A re-watch of the same film, however – taken fully on its own terms – reveals an entirely new, evolving artistic expression for Gray, even as he continues to gravitate towards the same kinds of ideas and anima.
It’s also an escalation of Gray’s cinematic command; like The Immigrant, it recalls the scope of 1970s American cinema (Coppola and Cimino especially) but filtered through the introspective humanity of 1980s Peter Weir.
Percy Fawcett was a British officer, geographer, archaeologist, and explorer. Despite that resume, his heritage was seedy; he was the son of a philandering alcoholic who died at the age of 44. Percy always felt like he had something to prove, primarily because British high society would never fully respect him despite his merits.
His search, then, for this Lost City (which he dubbed “Zed”) was more than a passion; it became an existential fixation. Yes, he wanted to prove his worth to a privileged class that found his Amazonian exploits dubious (at best), but even more than being seen as an equal Fawcett wanted to prove those elites wrong.
And yet his drive ultimately went deeper than class conflicts, reaching a level of mystical fascination. In a world increasingly at conflict, culminating in the First World War, Fawcett grew to romanticize this lost civilization as a Utopia, simplified yet pure.
This is where obsession turns into self-deceit, but for Fawcett it’s rooted in genuine idealism. That’s what makes him such a compelling figure, and Charlie Hunnam (TV’s Sons of Anarchy) has the impassioned fervor to make you root for Fawcett’s quest even as it’s defined by a slow descent (or perhaps ascent?) from reality.
There’s an inevitable toll on his family, too, but Sienna Miller makes wife Nina’s response to Percy’s mania convincingly complex. She’s a woman angered by abandonment and yet, to the last, remains loyal to her husband’s convictions, ones that eventually captivate their eldest son as well (played superbly by Spider-Man: Homecoming’s Tom Holland). It’s love that transcends heartbreak, even betrayal.
And that’s the word for what Gray achieves here (especially in the final moments): transcendent. On one hand, there’s a delusion in the belief that one discovery can answer every question, heal every ill, and solve every problem. And yet, for as foolhardy as that may be, there’s a spiritual euphoria in that pursuit, one that reaches not only beyond one’s self but also beyond all that is known. It is, in itself, a salvation.