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Set in Europe and South America in the first decades of the 20th century, James Gray’s The Lost City Of Z is a lyrical epic of madness, mystique, and civilization in rich and almost symphonic dialogue with itself. The eponymous lost city is the ruin of a theorized culture in the Amazon rainforest—but also a symbol of the Quixotic search for redemption in a world compromised by the cruelty of the colonial rubber trade and the nightmare of trench warfare. The one who seeks it is Percival “Percy” Fawcett: a British artillery officer, an explorer, a social climber, a rationalist mystic, the son of a drunk who ruined the family fortune and name. Mapping the border of Bolivia as an agent of the Royal Geographical Society, he comes across glyphic markings and pieces of broken pottery; finding their source will become Fawcett’s dream. Through Gray’s orchestration of themes, ironies, and flashes of transcendence, the thick of the jungle becomes as haunting and multivalent an image as the hidden city. It is that which we all disappear into.
Gray himself is a neglected American master, and it’s one of those paradoxes of great movie-making that The Lost City Of Z is somehow both his most literal and his most ambiguous work. In films like The Immigrant and Two Lovers, he has shown a peerless talent for teasing subtleties; these are movies that place most of their dramatic weight in unspoken conflicts. But The Lost City Of Z, which really shows the range of Gray’s command of classic film idiom, is an adventure film—even a war film, for a stretch in the middle. The cast is terrific, with a revelatory turn from Charlie Hunnam as Fawcett; the handsome English actor brings so much poise to the role that one can’t help but think that he’s been getting the wrong scripts for most of his career. Sienna Miller, who plays his wife, Nina, has also never been better. Yet this is clearly Gray’s least performance-driven film. All of his movies are to some degree about yearning, dissatisfaction, and alienation. But in the search for a ruin in the Amazon, these are not emotions, but facts of geography and time.
Perhaps it’s a question of shot selection, as Gray—who has a painterly, shadowy visual style, often reminiscent of the great American films of the 1970s—has stuck to a largely emotional logic in earlier films; his compositions are wide or tight to reflect how characters feel. But in a film with as much to show as The Lost City Of Z—the primeval aura of the rainforest, the social currents of an Edwardian ballroom, the muddy deathscape of World War I—the functions of emotion and exposition blur together. Gray’s wide shots are among the saddest in contemporary film, and as a result the movie is pervaded by loneliness and resignation—intervals of space, sometimes akin to the ma of Japanese landscape painting. Working again with the great cinematographer Darius Khondji, he evokes the mystery and fatal indifference of the mythic Amazon. (There is also a cut that clearly references Lawrence Of Arabia.) The journey into the rainforest doesn’t reveal a conflict between man and nature, but a deeply human enigma. It is drawn into a question mark in the hallucinatory final shot.
In Arthurian legend, Percival is the first knight to lay his eyes on the holy grail; it is he who is invited to sleep in the splendid castle of the Fisher King, but wakes up in a ruin. So the name is a touch on the nose, but that’s a stroke of history, as Percival Fawcett was a real man (in some ways more conflicted that the one Gray portrays) and his disappearance in the jungles of Brazil in 1925 has made him almost as much of a myth as his lost city. The Lost City Of Z was adapted by Gray from David Grann’s non-fiction book of the same title, though it’s anything but a straight page-to-screen translation. Rather, it creates a complex internal conversation; it’s an operatic drama, an adventure saga, an anti-colonialist critique, a veiled artistic self-portrait, and, yes, even a revisionist grail legend. The knightly Percival is also a figure of spiritual longing and failure, and in order to complete his quest, he must cure the wounded, impotent Fisher King by asking him a question. In Gray’s version, Fawcett is set on his journey by the mutterings of an enslaved guide whose back is covered with whip scars. On that level, it is a quest of colonial guilt. But really, it is many things.
Gray takes substantial liberties with the real story. Some are purely logical; for instance, the decision to reduce the number of expeditions undertaken by Fawcett from seven to just three. On the first two of these, in 1906 and 1911, he is assisted by Henry Costin (a wonderful, barely recognizable Robert Pattinson), conceived as a sort of classic adventurer’s sidekick—a loyal aide-de-camp, quick with the Webley revolver. For the last expedition, in 1925, he is joined by his eldest son, Jack (Tom Holland), on a bittersweet father-son bonding trip into oblivion. What is perhaps just as important to the shape of the movie is what Gray decides to omit; for example, there is no acknowledgement of the real-life Fawcett’s artistic talents or his friendships with the popular writers of the time, including H. Rider Haggard and Arthur Conan Doyle. Most filmmakers would find this irresistible, but by refashioning Fawcett into someone who isn’t a creative figure, Gray turns the explorer into a more effective metaphor for the artist.
As time wears away at him, the search for Z (pronounced “Zed”) becomes less about rewriting the accepted history of the Amazon, and more about the human condition; it is inspired as much by the horrors of chlorine gas and slavery as by archeological evidence. The expeditions, all three of which are to some extent disastrous and enlightening, are thick with danger and camaraderie. There are piranhas, spears, and treacherous rapids. The Lost City Of Z recognizes that to question the romanticism of exploration, one must first stoke it. It is a strange sort of adventure film, in that it spends as much time in Europe as it does in the rain forest; is as anthropologically curious about the social customs of early 20th century Britons as it is about the indigenous peoples of the Amazon; and cares as much about what is destroyed as what might be found. It gives weight to Fawcett’s failings, his complicity, his hypocrisy; he claims to treat Nina as an equal, but finds excuses not to, leaving an incomplete story in her hands.
It is a beautiful film with many small wonders and mysteries of its own for the viewer to discover: the candor of the first scenes between the Fawcetts, and the way they give a human face to the era’s social maneuvering; the explorers’ visit to a rubber baron (Franco Nero) who has built a small open-air opera house on his slave plantation; the scene of the boisterous debate at the Royal Geographical Society; the use of Maurice Ravel’s ballet Daphnis Et Chloé to suggest an elusive meaning to the jungle; the sweep and Tolstoy-esque detail of the scenes of social life in mid-1900s Ireland and England, which bring to mind Michael Cimino’s attempts to re-sculpt the New Hollywood auteur cult in the image of 19th century fiction in films like The Deer Hunter and Heaven’s Gate. In the character of Fawcett, it finds both the poetry and the pathology of exploration.
“So much of life is a mystery,” he says to Jack in one of his final lines of the film, which doubles poignantly as a self-summary. Is he a sacrificial lamb to his own quest of self-discovery? A Percival who has accepted failure as its own form of spiritual fulfillment? A wistful man escaping into the unknown from a world of snobbery and war? An emotionally absent husband and father who has doomed his wife and son to look for meaning in his own consuming obsessions? Gray has one important thing in common with Nicholas Ray, the classic studio iconoclast best known for Rebel Without A Cause: His characters are motivated by the same feelings that drive them apart from the world. Fawcett—he is a bit like so many of us, stuck in the strictures of his time, but struggling to understand and be understood in the context of something bigger. So is Nina, a character with her own complex dramatic arc. In the end, they are consumed, literally or figuratively, by the questions they can’t answer. Perhaps that’s just life.