Director James Gray’s The Lost City of Z is a languorous, pensive film that immediately sticks out amongst the releases showing in cinemas right now. Therefore, as the credits began to roll, I kept wondering what had compelled the twentysomething people in the theatre alongside me to see it. Were they closet fans of Gray (the director of the similarly wistful The Immigrant with Joaquin Phoenix and Marion Cotillard or Two Lovers with Phoenix and Gwyneth Paltrow)? Persons who did not get into Guardians of the Galaxy or Furious 8? Or folks misled by the film’s “adventure drama” billing? Pinning down an audience for the film is as hard as pinning down the film itself.
The film tells the story of Percy Fawcett, a British solider turned explorer, who makes a series of journeys into the Amazon in the early 20th century. The first journey by Fawcett, played by Charlie Hunnam, is to assist in mapmaking to settle a squabble between Brazil and Bolivia. However, a chance encounter with a native Amerindian and some highly-advanced pottery in the jungle captivate him.
He becomes convinced that somewhere in this very same Amazonia there are remnants of a previously unknown civilisation further down. He becomes convinced that he, and he alone, must find it.
If you are familiar with your history books, you would know he never finds it, and this is no spoiler. The Lost City of Z never pretends to be a mystery or a quest film. Instead, Fawcett’s journeys are all marked by an elegiac tone, telegraphed to us from early on. This is a mission that does not depend on the endgame. But Fawcett persists, interrupted by family duties at home and the breakout of World War I but all the while tending his compulsion to return to the jungle to find this lost city.
Movies have always been beguiled by those obsessed–the mad scientist, the obsessed director. A man’s obsession makes for compelling drama, but what happens when his obsession is more abstract than corporeal? I kept thinking of Anthony Minghella’s The English Patient, another film about explorers, who are beguiled by the world they explore instead of staid England on the brink of a World War. There it was the hot desert, here it’s the humid rainforest. The Lost City of Z’s ultimate issue in that comparison is that we seem to spend too little time in Amazonia to truly get wooed by it. By the second visit, Fawcett’s earnest compulsion to return seems almost confusing.
And for all of Darius Khondji’s excellent cinematography (he sure does love his dark and moody shots), the Amazon does not immediately have the urgency for us as it seems to have for Fawcett.
However, somewhere around the last third of the film, I began to wonder whether the inscrutable nature of Fawcett’s obsession was the point of the film. Fawcett puts on an excellent ethical show, arguing that finding this city is imperative to destroy English imperial arrogance concerning the potential of savages. You would misread the film to see him as merely a perfect creation espousing white-guilt Enlightenment, though. Amidst his virtuous desire to change the scope of England’s history of disavowing other cultures, Gray dangles the possibility of additional (but not contradictory) reasons for his desire to find Z.
He is doing it for himself. He is doing it because he loves it. He is doing it to prove to himself that the world has more value than the plains of England. It’s the crucial crisis that gives the last half of the film its delicacy, especially when the film fashions Sienna Miller’s Nina, Fawcett’s wife, as an essential anchor, providing an alternative to the magic of the possibility of Z.
Fawcett’s home life is at times more compelling than his Amazonian obsession, especially as two of strongest scenes in the film are domestic ones, betraying Gray’s affection for people over scenery. The first is a ferocious argument between husband and wife on whether the jungle is fit for a woman, and the second, explosive one, where older son Jack confronts his father for abandoning the family in favour of seeking the thrill of exploration. Miller gets a rare chance to show her mettle and provides an essential foil for Hunnam’s Felix. It is Nina who finds the page of the conquistador text in a Dublin library, shedding light on this potential city, and it is she who in the last moments of the film gives what turns into the film’s own thesis statement. “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp,” she says, sadly, late in the film. “Otherwise, what’s a heaven for?”
It’s a discomfiting fact that this also applies to the film’s grasp, which does not always reach its ambitions. And, yet I felt compelled to write about The Lost City of Z and to encourage audiences to give it some attention. At the end of it, it’s doubtful that we emerge feeling as if we know Felix Fawcett. Still, his almost iterant belief in something greater presents a compelling, if idyllic, metaphor for life in trying times. After all, what a noble flaw in a film, in life, to fail at striving for excellence than to merely settle for mediocrity. The Lost City of Z does not quite reach the apex of grace but its attempts to do so linger in the consciousness. It is a sort of reminder that amidst the general sameness of life, there’s always something more worth striving for.
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