The Lost City of Z

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Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Is James Gray the best American filmmaker most Americans haven’t heard of?

Critics love him, and with good reason. His The Immigrant was a beautifully photographed and complex tale of 1920s New York strivers. Pictures like The Yards and We Own the Night took on crime and family and class.

Yet studios have been less supportive (Harvey Weinstein reportedly tried to butcher The Immigrant, and when Gray fought him, petulantly dumped it, instead). And audiences haven’t exactly flocked to the filmmaker’s Coppola-esque melodramas.

They may not rush to The Lost City of Z, either, which sounds like a tween fantasy and is, instead, an epic story of failed adventure. But that’s another loss for them—while the film is a new achievement for Gray.

Gray has always followed in the steps of great ’70s filmmakers (one of the reasons, perhaps, so many baby-boomer critics get him). This movie adds a few more mystical influences to the mix—Werner Herzog, perhaps, and Peter Weir.

But the film itself remains fully James Gray.

Based on fact, it’s the story of Col. Percy Fawcett, a mostly mediocre English officer asked to lead a small expedition to map the Bolivian border. He did it, for king and country, but along the way developed his own cause—to prove that a great civilization once existed deep in the jungles of the Amazon.

It was a quest he would follow for the rest of his life.

Gray is a better director than he is a screenwriter—he sometimes loses the thread of things, or lingers when he needs to speed along. There are also a few logical gaps here, too (how can Fawcett’s superiors find the very idea of ancient American civilizations so impossible, when the Mayans’ Chichen Itza had been well known for 400 years?)

And the picture’s slow start also tamps down the charisma our protagonist needs to have. For the first act of the picture, Charlie Hunnam barely registers; he doesn’t catch the eye the way the stars of Lawrence of Arabia or Fitzcarraldo immediately did.

In fact, he’s so bland that when he returns from his first expedition, and starts shouting at the members of the Royal Geographical Society, his aggressiveness comes out of nowhere—he doesn’t seem like the same person.

But, perhaps he’s not. Because this question has, for whatever reason, taken over his life. And it will drive the rest of the picture.

For as the movie goes on, Hunnam’s Fawcett gets more and more interesting (particularly compelling is his marriage-of-equals with his spirited wife, played by Sienna Miller). And he’s joined by a fine cast, including Robert Pattinson (unrecognizable, and quite sweet, as Henry Costin, Fawcett’s aide-de-camp) and Angus Macfayden, as a particularly pompous sponsor.

But it’s Gray’s careful choices as a director that truly star here, from the classically infused score by frequent collaborator Christopher Spelman to the inspiring shots of remote Colombia captured by his frequent director of photography, Darius Khondji.

And then there are the individual sequences, like the explorers’ first encounter with angry natives. A grotesque but perfectly lucid scene from the frontlines of World War I. And the film’s protracted, dreamy climax, as Fawcett finds himself caught between two warring tribes, and escorted into their secrets deep in a jungle full of burning lights, each one twinkling like a faraway star.

The story of a determined individual, ignoring all sensible advice to go on a high-stakes, high-cost quest where failure is almost guaranteed? What filmmaker wouldn’t identify?

And what film fan wouldn’t cheer him on?

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