Writer-director James Gray seems to be getting better and better with each film. His first five movies, starting with Little Odessa in 1994, all take place in his native New York City. Now he’s directed a much different story that spans from Edwardian England to the Amazon rain forest. Based on a non-fiction book by David Gran, it dramatizes the story of British explorer Percy Fawcett. If you’re American the title reads The Lost City of Z. However, as you’ll discover when you watch the film, the English pronounce the last letter of the alphabet “zed,” which means that the correct way to say the title is The Lost City of Zed.
Charlie Hunnam plays Fawcett, whom we first see on a stag hunt in 1905, a 38-year-old major in the Army, already considered a bit old by his hunting companions, but who nevertheless wins the prize. He’s married with a young son, and eager for advancement, but the failures of his alcoholic gambler father have prejudiced the top brass against him. Then, out of the blue, he is offered an unusual assignment by the Royal Geographic Society—the command of an expedition into the jungles of Bolivia, to chart the winding Heath River near the border with Brazil, and thereby help avoid a territorial war between those two fledgling South American countries. It will mean being away from his family for two years, and missing the birth of his second son. But he takes the chance, as perhaps the only way to attain distinction. The expedition turns out to be painful, exhausting, and dangerous, beset by attacks from natives, disease, and difficulty finding food. But when he finds evidence of a possible ancient civilization that had once existed in this jungle, he is thrilled to the core. Stories from an Indian guide concerning a great city help start an obsession to find this lost metropolis, which he names Zed, and this obsession will stay with him for the rest of his life, in the process causing him to neglect his duties as a husband, father, and citizen.
This film establishes James Gray, even more distinctively than his previous work The Immigrant, as one of the last practitioners of the classic style among American directors. It is shot not digitally, like most movies nowadays, but in 35 millimeter film, and you can tell the difference immediately in the depth and soft richness of the color—he and his cinematographer, the great Darius Khondji, have done wonders here. The visual texture, the production design, the rhythm of the shots and the moving camera, all draw the viewer into this epic tale.
Charlie Hunnam, who up until now has been known in mostly supporting roles, and in the TV show Sons of Anarchy, was cast when Benedict Cumberbatch had to bow out because of a scheduling conflict. Hunnam is outstanding in the central role of Fawcett. Rather than portray him as some kind of reckless madman, the film lets us understand how such an obsession could dominate a person of this caliber, who loves his family, but whose passion for discovery seems almost like an escape valve for the stiff social realities of early 20th century England. Robert Pattinson is remarkably self-effacing, unrecognizable almost, as Henry Costin, an American who becomes Fawcett’s right hand man.
The story has been compressed for dramatic purposes from Fawcett’s actual seven South American expeditions. What I admire about the film even more than the acting and the impeccable production values, is Gray’s careful balance between heroic and anti-heroic impulses. Instead he achieves a rare portrait of the spiritual aspirations burning within a man of action. Fawcett’s quest becomes a journey to transcend ambition, hope, prejudice, fear—and ultimately himself, in order to experience a greater reality.
The Lost City of Z is a magnificent journey