When people talk about the kind of films that Hollywood just doesn't make anymore, they're talking about movies like The Lost City of Z. James Gray's period drama has been touted by critics since its premiere at the New York Film Festival in October, hailed as a return to the style of filmmaking that the major studios have all but abandoned. Back when directors weren't forced to rely on brand content and special effects to get their movies made, auteurs such as Francis Ford Coppola and David Lean were able to craft visionary works of art like Apocalypse Now, Lawrence of Arabia, and The Bridge on the River Kwai, monumental classics that have stood the test of time. Gray attempts to create a modern adventure epic with the story of Percy Fawcett, an iconic explorer who spent decades searching for a lost city in the amazon. It's a grand and sweeping character study about obsession, which means it's inherently more fascinating than most of the movies in theaters.
But while Gray's film is painted on a big, beautiful cinematic canvas, it's the personal touch of the story that makes it work so well. The Lost City of Z isn't a great film because it's made on a stunningly large scale (for an independent film at least), just like a special effects-driven epic isn't bad solely because of the sheer amount of CGI involved. Gray is a superbly talented director with a great visual eye, but he's also working with an incredible crew of actors and an excellent screenplay that really comes together in the final act. The Lost City of Z is long and slow, likely testing the patience of modern audiences who will go in expecting a swashbuckling adventure. But for those who stick with it and give the film room to breathe, the experience is rather rewarding. Accentuated by some of the most gorgeous shots put to film this year, The Lost City of Z is an epic story with stunning attention to character and detail that makes for a memorable trip to the theater.
In the early 20th century, Major Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam) is one of the most talented and well-respected men in the British army. But due to the disgraceful actions of his ancestors, the Fawcett family name has been tarnished, and Percy is prevented from receiving the decorations he rightfully deserves. Sir George Goldie (Ian McDiarmid) and the Royal Geographic Society give Fawcett a chance at redemption, inviting him to go on an exploratory adventure in the South American jungle. This would allow Percy to bring dignity back to his family name, which is all the motivation that he needs. He leaves his wife (Sienna Miller) and journeys to the jungle, along with Henry Costin (Robert Pattinson) and a brave crew of men. Fawcett and Costin find the conditions of the jungle to be almost unforgivably harsh, but near the end of their journey, they make a shocking discovery that sends Fawcett's life on a different path.
After reaching the end of the river, Fawcett finds bits of broken pottery in the jungle, causing him to have a startling realization- there could have been a civilization here. Back in London, Fawcett proposes the idea of the Lost City of Z, instantly receiving a mixture of ridicule and support. He finds the necessary money from a wealthy adventure lover named James Murray (Angus MacFayden), and without hesitation, Fawcett ventures into the jungle again. What follows for the next two decades is an epic saga of tragedy and obsession, as Fawcett's desire to find this ancient society is shown against the backdrop of World War I and his shifting relationship with his family. In search of a better world, Percy will do abandon his own and the ones he loves, hoping for a destiny of fame and fortune greater than any explorer before him.
The Lost City of Z is an uncommonly deliberate film, which goes against everything created in today's studio marketplace. Gray's film is very slow and methodical, never hoping to immediately engage the audience with dazzling action scenes or exceptionally fast pacing. It's amazing to contrast this approach with that of something like Guy Ritchie's King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, 2017's other major vehicle for Charlie Hunnam. That film assumes the worst of its audience, throwing everything at the screen in a desperate attempt to keep the viewer entertained. Gray is much more patient, allowing you to soak in the atmosphere and get the chance to know these characters well. At 2 hours and 22 minutes, it's never in a rush to tell its story, which proves to be a benefit as the film reaches its conclusion. It likely won't hook you immediately, but that's part of the charm.
Don't forget, Lawrence of Arabia and Apocalypse Now aren't exactly movies that dazzle with bold action scenes and fast pacing. The former is set in the desert and features a lengthy segment that has its main characters wander the sand-filled wasteland for what feels like hours. But when that scene ends and the payoff comes, it's better than just about anything modern cinema has to offer. The Lost City of Z operates in a similar way, with long stretches highlighting the sweat-drenched desperation of the jungle before Gray delivers an epic emotional climax. The film takes place over a long period of time, giving a beautiful sense of historical context while also allowing these characters and their motivations to develop. By the time Percy and Jack Fawcett head to the amazon on their final journey, you understand their relationship, their individual drives, the reason that this means so much to them. That's not an easy task to accomplish, but Gray's steady hand and meticulous approach allows the story to flourish.
This is what epic cinema can do, and it's why I miss that distinct touch in the modern marketplace. Everybody's in such a rush to move the story and the characters along that movies fail to capture a sense of time and place and miss the mark when it comes to watching characters grow and age over the course of a broad narrative. Gray seems intent to re-capture what's left of that old-fashioned magic here, and while I don't believe that a movie can be good solely on the basis of its retro goals, the filmmaker manages to create an ambitious epic while working with an extremely personal narrative. That's no easy task, but Gray is in impressive total command of just about every aspect. The cinematography by Darius Khondji is soaked in bright yellows and lush greens, like Apocalypse Now if it was styled like a classic painting. Gray also uses Christopher Spelman's score to terrific effect, underscoring the intensity while simultaneously embracing the silence and natural sounds of the jungle. It all amounts to a picture that is a masterpiece of composition, beautiful and subtly dangerous at every turn.
The Lost City of Z is also filled with dynamite performances, especially a tremendous lead turn from Charlie Hunnam. The actor has done acclaimed work in films like Children of Men and the hit TV show Sons of Anarchy, but he has yet to truly establish himself as a superstar actor. Hunnam may have his best shot to move into the mainstream with this film, which finds him playing a character who manages to be both relatively simple and infinitely complex. Percy Fawcett is a social progressive who believes in the brilliance of the indigenous people and a confident personality who can lead a room unlike any of his colleagues. But Percy also neglects his wife and seems to secretly (or even openly) despise the society that has been rather good to him over time. Hunnam is a commanding presence, but he also injects just the right amount of subtlety to make Percy compelling. He's supported mainly by the excellent Robert Pattinson, the former Twilight actor who turns Henry Costin into a thoroughly likable, well defined supporting character. Sienna Miller has some moments of profound sensitivity (I'd love to see her get a lead role eventually), and Tom Holland manages to find the spirit of Jack in the final act.
The Lost City of Z is most certainly a slow film, but if you really let it soak in and give it time, you'll come to find that James Gray has delivered the kind of movie that proves to be truly, deeply satisfying. Perhaps it gets a bit too meandering and leisurely towards the middle, but this astonishing historical saga never lost me for a second. Through an intoxicating combination of a narrative that spans decades, filmmaking that is as dazzling as it is meticulous, and wonderful performances, The Lost City of Z emerges as a remarkable experience that most viewers won't soon forget. It's not perfect, but this is a unique and distinctively daring journey that deserves to be seen and appreciated by a wide audience.
THE FINAL GRADE: B+ (8/10)
Images courtesy of Amazon and Bleecker Street