Far from his native Brooklyn, working without his regular lead Joaquin Phoenix, and telling a true story that spans decades, continents and wars, The Lost City of Z is on the surface a dramatic departure for James Gray. But by the time this languid epic has drawn to a close, the film feels very much of a piece with the classical and romantic but clear-eyed vision we’ve seen from him in previous films – the beautiful closing shot even mirrors the end of his wonderful 2013 film The Immigrant. While the ending of The Lost City of Z is perfectly judged, the path that takes us there is more troublesome, with Gray sometimes struggling to assemble the unusual events of Percy Fawcett’s remarkable life into a narrative shape that flows satisfyingly, but the film still exerts an irresistible pull as it follows this intrepid explorer into unknown territory. As Percy’s wife reminds him, “To look for what is beautiful is its own reward.”
Percy is played by Charlie Hunnam, who initially appears awkwardly suited to the character but gradually grows into the role. Perhaps an ill-fitting quality is appropriate anyway; when we meet Fawcett he’s stationed in Ireland, a British soldier with no medals on his uniform and struggling to advance beyond his current rank. “He has been rather unfortunate in his choice of ancestors,” one of his superiors snidely observes, and an opportunity to reclaim the family name tarnished by his drunkard father is presented to him when he’s tasked with mapping the uncharted Amazon and defining the borders between Brazil and Bolivia.
This task grows into a lifelong obsession when Fawcett stumbles across evidence of an ancient civilisation and dedicates himself to finding this lost city, in defiance of the British establishment that scoffs at any suggestion of these “savages” being capable of such feats. His journey brings to mind similar cinematic odysseys of the past. It’s impossible to avoid thinking about Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo, for example when the explorers encounter an opera house in the heart of the jungle, while the journey downriver recalls the same director’s Aguirre or the more recent Embrace of the Serpent. Similarly, Fawcett's first encounters with the natives hints at the mutual curiosity and sense of discovery that distinguished Malick's The New World, and yet I found myself getting lost in all of these films more completely than The Lost City of Z. I can't quite put my finger on why that is, but perhaps it's that Gray doesn't seem to get lost; the film always maintains a stately, composed air that's barely troubled even by a piranha attack or an onslaught of arrows.
Still, this is an intelligent adaptation of a difficult life story. Fawcett's multiple excursions into the Amazon are streamlined down to three, and his many travelling companions composited into a few key characters. Edward Ashley and Robert Pattinson both give fine, modestly supportive performances as his loyal right-hand men, while Angus Macfadyen delivers a tremendously entertaining turn as the egocentric and cowardly biologist who scuppers Fawcett's second trip. But it is Fawcett's relationship with his own family, particularly his wife (Sienna Miller) and his son (Tom Holland) that becomes the movie's central thread. Each time he returns from his expeditions, Fawcett has missed the birth of a children or some key years of their development, and Miller in particular does well to bring warmth and shades of complexity to her intermittent appearances. These scenes tend to have an awkwardness and stiffness that stalls the proceedings, however, with the Gray struggling to create the necessary tension that Fawcett's absence causes in the family home in an organic and convincing way.
I've seen The Lost City of Z twice now and on both occasions I have been transfixed by its craft – Darius Khondji's gorgeous images; John Axelrad's ability to collapse months or years into a single David Lean-like cut – while always feeling at a slight remove from the drama; that is, until the very end. It's with Fawcett's final journey that the film transcends the basic details of its narrative and finds an emotional weight that hasn't been evident in the preceding two hours. The film suddenly takes on a mysterious, dreamlike quality, and incorporates a few judicious flashbacks that have a devastating impact. “What you seek is far greater than you ever imagined,” Fawcett is told during the film, and this proves to be the case. Perhaps the story of Percy Fawcett was ultimately too great for James Gray to successfully imagine, but the moments when it does come together certainly make the endeavour worthwhile; and as The Lost City of Z reminds us, a man's reach should exceed his grasp.