Depending on whom you ask, director James Gray (We Own the Night, The Immigrant) is either his generation’s Kubrick — a dogged, uncompromising auteur of narcotized mood pieces — or a ponderous, inert storyteller with an elegant camera eye.
Whatever your opinion of the polarizing filmmaker, he’s an unlikely choice for The Lost City of Z (pronounced “zed”), an adaptation of David Grann’s biography of British explorer Percy Fawcett, whose obsessive expeditions into the uncharted Amazon inspired the character of Indiana Jones.
Written and directed by Gray, and jettisoning some of the book’s more self-reflexive flourishes, it’s sure to bring Gray his widest worldwide audience. But is there a cost? How can the director’s rigorous vision maintain itself when hemmed into a traditional biopic formula?
Gray splits the difference by borrowing from Werner Herzog and Embrace of the Serpent’s Ciro Guerra as much as from David Lean and John Huston, weaving elements of an old-fashioned adventure yarn into a study of quixotic obsession and, for certain characters, near-madness. His approach is more workmanlike than ever before, but he paces the occasionally conventional beats with unimpeachable command, spiking them with visual poetry. The Lost City of Z is devoid of fat and fatuousness, and rich in beauty and curiosity. Perhaps its most impressive feat is that it revives a childhood desire to explore the unknown, even when all roads lead to fatalistic folly.
We first meet Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam) as an undecorated military officer stationed in Ireland in 1905, successfully impressing his superiors by scoring the impressive kill of a prized steer. It works: A fount of insecurity hoping to reclaim his family name from his drunken louse of a father, Fawcett soon accepts an offer from the Royal Geographical Society to hazard the untamed wilds of South America to survey land on the Bolivian/Brazilian border. “Sounds like a grand adventure,” he says, in one of those lines designed for a movie trailer but that Hunnam somehow pulls off. There are many more to come.
The actor, most known for Sons of Anarchy and for playing dutiful support in middling Hollywood actioners and period pieces, has Chris Hemsworth’s carriage and Brad Pitt’s gaze (Pitt had originally signed on to portray Fawcett, and maintains an executive producer credit). He’s every bit a leading man in the making, and under Gray’s pictorially ravishing lens, he conjures Peter O’Toole exchanging Arabia for Amazonia. Gray even treats us to a clever, Lawrence-like edit to signal his character’s transition into the unknown: He fades from a stream of liquor poured from the flask of his anxious aide-de-camp (Robert Pattinson) into a barreling train moving in the same direction.
Long before reaching his destination, Fawcett is told to abort the mission: The journey is far more dangerous than anticipated. But Fawcett is the kind of person to ignore practical precautions, so he braves the thickets and wilds of the malarial jungle and the river described by one character as “a green desert,” while dodging arrows from justifiably aggressive natives. Gray doesn’t dramatize some of Fawcett’s wildest claims from this first expedition, such as the 62-foot anaconda he purports to have shot. It’s the discovery of ancient pottery at the end of the voyage that most interests Gray’s explorer, indicating the presence of a lost civilization that will rewrite history books.
In between expeditions, The Lost City of Z spends more time than you’d think on dry land, charting the domestic and political fallout from Fawcett’s insatiable desire to explore. In these somewhat obvious interludes, we identify easily with Fawcett’s anticolonialist passion for placing ancient history in its proper context, and we shake our heads at the simple-minded Caucasian centrism of the British aristocracy. Fawcett is soon saddled with a convenient nemesis in the form of James Murray (Angus Macfadyen), a grandstanding explorer who joins him on his second odyssey only to sabotage it — which leads to a regrettably theatrical bit of melodrama at a round table in the inner sanctum of the RGS.
More successful are Fawcett’s impossible attempts to reconcile family life with his wife Nina (Sienna Miller), with his innate desire to discover El Dorado. This is where Gray sidesteps hagiography, bluntly assessing the destructive flipside of Fawcett’s adventures, and presenting Nina as a figure of tragic sacrifice, raising three children alone. “You’re real,” she says, stroking his cheek, upon his return home from another years-long expedition, in the film’s most poignant moment. We know it’ll be short-lived: Like a soldier addicted to the adrenaline of the battlefield, Fawcett doesn’t feel complete unless he’s venturing dangerous waters.
Shot on 35mm by the great Darius Khondji, The Lost City of Z most comes alive on these expeditions, which coalesce into a slow-burning climax full of brazen conjecture, swelling sadness and mesmerizing ritualism as divorced from the popcorn adventurism of the Indiana Jones franchise as you can imagine in a multimillion-dollar studio picture. For fans of Gray’s sturdy art-house curios, it will be manna from the Amazon.
THE LOST CITY OF Z. Director: James Gray; Cast: Charlie Hunnam, Robert Pattinson, Sienna Miller, Tom Holland, Angus Macfadyen; Distributor: Amazon Studios; Rating: PG-13; Opens: Friday at most area theaters