DIFF 2017 Review: James Gray’s ‘The Lost City of Z’

Discovery is obsession. The impulse to find, uncover and reveal is inextricable from humanity’s faculty of desire. We are all of us consciousnesses bound in flesh; living is limitation and so what evades our sensual factories are the realities which we desire most. We are objects of clay, sentient earth, and because there are still places shrouded in mystery, unknown to human eyes, it is the pull of the human heart to unveil that which has been hidden. This desire spans the grandiose to the interpersonal: from unreachable cities of gold to the enigma of a spouse’s heart. James Gray’s The Lost City of Z is a rapturous work that threads humanity’s restless desire to earth’s impenetrable majesty.

Major Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam) is a British soldier stationed in Ireland in the early-20th century. He is called by the Royal Geographical Society in London to help survey and map the border between Bolivia and Brazil. Despite his respectability, Fawcett is a man of low distinction; no medals adorn his uniform and he is tied to an unfortunate family history which threatens to poison his very own legacy. Fawcett can’t resist the opportunity to make a better name for himself and to transcend the men who came before.

The Lost City of Z is structured around three expeditions, and Gray frames each as a further descent into the obsessions of the human heart. Fawcett and his partner Henry Costin (Robert Pattison) begin their journey to sate a war brewing between Bolivia and Brazil. As a neutral party, Britain is asked to map this borderline, but Britain is never neutral. The imperialist spirit cannot be quenched, and when their Indian guide tells Fawcett of a land of maize and gold the white man has never seen, his heart is set. At the end of that first mission, they stumble upon fragments of ancient pottery — evidence of the mythical site.

The unknown land of Z (pronounced “Zed”) enchants Fawcett. For a man with a broken past and no professional adornment, the discovery of a land full of earth’s riches sets Fawcett’s wandering heart ablaze. And Hunnam is a revelation as this earthen creature who contains in himself an entanglement of ambition, obsession, compassion and desperation. He sells Fawcett not as a conquistador nor as a loon, but as man who roams the earth yet does not find rest. There is no pure distillation of motivation. He loves his family but is bound to Amazonia. He doesn’t seek man’s approval yet his discoveries must be acknowledged within the theater of man. As the second and final expeditions unfold, the mystery and elision of this lost city infect him so that he seems wholly caught up by a majesty that has no correlative in the average human experience.

Splendor’s main practitioner here is cinematographer Darius Khondji. His frames are tinged with otherworldliness. He perfectly captures that psychic space between reality and Fawcett’s desire. Part of that can be attributed to Gray’s obsession with shooting 35mm stock. He did the same with his previous film, The Immigrant, which resulted in an aesthetic like historical memory. Film is Gray’s gold, and the meticulousness with light and texture — the way he and Khondji visualize the jungle as a land set apart from material reality — is pure delight. The Lost City of Z’s patiently framed shadows, the flickers of its torches and the depth of its skin tones imbue the film with an ethereal poignancy.

As Fawcett finds his heart increasingly bound to the jungle, he seems to slip away (almost materially) from the realities that make humans human. His long-suffering wife Nina (brilliantly portrayed by Sienna Miller) and children never bring him the joy or fulfillment that his Amazonia does. Gray plays those tensions deftly and truthfully. He realizes the tenuous, delicate nature of this character and situation. Fawcett has the remnants of a good family man within him, yet his visions of life’s unknown glories pull him ever from that. He misses most of three children’s childhoods yet finds in the South American natives a cause and people to champion to his English peers. There’s even a point before the second expedition begins where Nina insists she join him; he denies her even the consideration. The interpersonal conflicts of the average existence find counterpoint in the grandeur of life. The critique of Fawcett’s (and his country’s) desperate, chauvinistic masculinity is not ignored, yet Gray doesn’t mind complicating it.

Interrupted by deceit on his second expedition and the fall of World War I, Fawcett never finds his lost city, so he and his eldest son Jack (Tom Holland) embark on a third expedition. Thus Gray brings a redemptive vision to the tale: the journey which once divided father and son now bind them as pilgrims of glory. The final 30 minutes of the film signal some of the best American filmmaking of recent years. As if there were new realities to be discovered in cinema, Gray and Khondji give texture to transcendence; glory is a tangible elemental reality. It cannot be understated: The Lost City of Z is a revelation.

Colin Stacy (@bcolinstacy) is a writer, husband and father in Fort Worth, Texas. His writing has been featured at Reel Spirituality, Movie Mezzanine and 100 Films | 100 Scenes. He’s also the creator of the “Written and Directed by Elaine May” t-shirt.