"The jungle is hell, but one kind of likes it."
It is odd how stories that seem so inherently similar to seem so similar to many that have come before it but are somehow able to be distinct and unique in their execution. On the surface James Gray’s latest and most ambitious directorial effort yet, ‘The Lost City of Z’ would appear to be derivative of any other true story relating to exploration, losing oneself (physically and metaphorically) in a jungle and going up the river. But a closer look reveals far more.
At the dawn of the 20th century, British explorer Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam) journeys into the Amazon, where he discovers evidence of a previously unknown civilization that may have once inhabited the region. Despite being ridiculed by the scientific establishment, the determined Fawcett, supported by his devoted wife (Sienna Miller), son (Tom Holland), and aide-de-camp (Robert Pattinson), returns to his beloved jungle in an attempt to prove his case.
As I said at the start ‘The Lost City of Z’ does sound familiar to a lot of other cinematic odysseys about this kind of subject, and it even explores the same themes to a certain extent. Anyone familiar with ‘Apocalypse Now’ will know that to go “up the river” is to journey into one’s own soul and potentially become lost within oneself. Or at least that is the angle that a lot of these stories take and ‘The Lost City of Z’ is no different. It takes the true story of Percy Fawcett and turns it into a hauntingly composed meditation on obsession and intrigue. Unlike many explorers Fawcett’s first journey into the jungle was not his last, but he returned time and time again as the jungle landscape becomes more familiar to him than the society from whence he came.
Now that all sounds very dramatic and Gray mostly plays it as such. His film does not unfold in the traditional melodramatic sense as there is not really a clean cut structure to it. The film sort of morphs its way into being and gradually encroaches upon the viewer. It reminded me greatly of Werner Herzog’s tales of obsession and exploration like ‘Fitzcaraldo’ and especially ‘Aguirre, Wrath of God’. Like Herzog’s films, ‘The Lost City of Z’ is less overtly powerful and more of an absorbing experience. There is a haunted, almost dreamlike quality to the film in its structure and it plays more into our deeper existential fears than allowing you to relate on an intimate level.
This could come across as tedious were it not for the way Gray paces the film. With the first expedition being a thrilling, straightforward adventure story of dares and dos, the film gradually grows darker as you can feel Pawcett’s grasp on reality slowly unravel. This tone is matched by Hunnam’s performance, which is somewhat distance and will inevitably put some people off, but for me rang true to what Gray wanted to accomplish with this film. He’s so clearly an outsider to the rest of society that one can hardly blame his strive to discover a new one. The people that do surround him are also brilliantly realised by the supporting cast that includes Tom Holland, Sienna Miller and an almost unrecognizable Robert Pattinson.
When the story does take us back to society Gray makes these sequences just as intriguing as those in the jungle. Not just because it plays into his character study to see how Pawcett relates to the world around him, but also because the cinematography and direction are still superb. Though they lack the texture of the jungle (purely because, well, they’re not a jungle) these scenes are impeccably crafted, lavishly detailed and thrillingly tense at times due to Pawcett’s own conflict with his contemporary critics.
However it is in the jungle where the cinematography truly comes to life. Each shot has such a richness to it but also never fails to convey the danger and discomfort of the explorers’ journey. The visual splendour almost contributes to the weight of the journey as it goes on. This is a story of several expeditions that took place over twenty years, with each one being equally unfulfilling. The film jumps through that time on numerous occasions, noting how the arduous task seems to morph into a never ending trial. While one or two of these jumps are a bit too big of a logical leap, I’m willing to accept that character motivations change over the course of time but it would be helpful to have more clarity over why they change, but then again maybe it is to further convey Pawcett’s own distance from those around him as his obsession with the fabled lost city grows ever more prominent.
‘The Lost of Z’ is by no means a perfect film, meandering around and often losing focus of what drives the story (almost like its main character, or is that just fishing for a theme that doesn’t exist?). But its ambition has to be admired, and with Gray’s film taking this epic story and condensing it down to a deeply absorbing character study with brilliant cinematography and all round good performances it stands as one of the best of this year so far.
Hypnotic and haunting, the story of a man and his endless obsessions that led to nowhere with deep thematic weight and excellent execution.