The first thing that will grab you about James Gray’s The Lost City of Z, is just how jaw droppingly gorgeous this film looks. Drenched in a dazzlingly washed out palette of greens, yellows and browns, it instantly transports you back to the early 1900’s and the heart of the jungle. Captivating its audience from the first frame until its last, The Lost City of Z offers a profound and spiritual exploration into one man’s obsession, reputation and legacy.
Adapted from David Grann’s book, The Lost City of Z tells the incredible true story of British explorer Major Percy Fawcett, who journeys into the Amazon at the dawn of the 20th century as a mediator between the on-going boarder disputes with Bolivia and Brazil. Whilst deep in the jungle on his initial expedition, he discovers evidence of a previously unknown, advanced ancient civilisation which he names ‘Z’.
Upon his return to London and after revealing his discovery, he is ridiculed by his peers and the scientific establishment who regard indigenous populations of South America as ‘savages’ and brush away his claims. Determined to prove his case, and restore his tarnished family name Fawcett, supported by his devoted wife, son and loyal team, returns time and again to his beloved jungle in search of The Lost City of Z.
Opting for a straightforward biographical route to tell this story, Gray delivers a focused character study on a man who has found himself marginalised by society due to his “Poor choice in ancestry.” Yet, it is his desire to achieve greatness at any cost that drives Fawcett on a jungle adventure of obsession and pride. Although these themes are prominent throughout, The Lost City of Z also alludes to a spiritually journey with a hint of an afterlife even with a fortune teller declaring “What you seek is far greater than you ever imagined.”
Taking on the role of Fawcett is Charlie Hunnman who expertly manages to portray the intrepid explorer with ruthless dogged determination and gentlemanly conviction. Accompanying Fawcett on his expeditions is the quiet sarcastic dry wit of Henry Costin (Robert Pattinson) and Arthur Manley (Edward Ashley) who are more than willing to follow Fawcett into the heart of darkness. Back in England is Fawcett’s wife Nina (Sienna Miller), who although is away from the exploits of jungle, remains devout and supportive with continuous faith in her husband’s quest “A mans reach should exceed his grasp, or what is heaven for?” Whilst having to raise a family with an ever absent father and the First World War looming, it is this understated role that gives the film its much needed heart. As time passes by, Fawcett’s eldest son Jack (Tom Holland) who was initially resentful of his father, grows up wanting to emulate him. Eventually Jack joins his expeditions in search of ‘Z’ in an attempt to become a great, courageous explorer and potentially exceed his father’s reputation.
Harking back to the classic sprawling epics of David Lean and Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, The Lost City of Z evokes these in terms of scale, scope and grandeur. Whether its placing you in the middle of the hunt, wading you through the piranha infested Amazon or cowering from the arrows of indigenous tribesmen, Gray ensures he puts the viewer right alongside our intrepid explorer with stunning dramatic effect and attention to detail. The reportedly gruelling shoot took place on location in Columbia (standing in for the Amazon) and you really do feel the mud and humidity seeping through the screen.
The sumptuous cinematography from Darius Khondjiis, whose work is nothing short of masterful, is lush and majestic which provides the film with an antiquated and dream like aesthetic. The use of light is incredible; often restrained to the flicker of a camp fire, providing a real emphasis on the shadows, or poring in from every angle and invading the screen. Opting to shoot in glorious 35mm celluloid has given the film a completely immersive experience capturing the vividness of the jungle and injecting life into this adventure and realism into its period setting.
Expertly complementing the visuals is the score by Christopher Spelman which intertwines perfectly with additional classical works, providing the film with a delicate transcendent beauty. The final shot is as gorgeous as it is ambiguous, providing a haunting but perfect final image.
With The Lost City of Z, James Gray has managed to deliver measured, ambitious and profound filmmaking which captures the true spirt of exploration. His portrayal of Percy Fawcett’s corageous and obsessive quest for a legacy is rich with emotional resonance, sacrfice and beauty. Classical in its execution and absorbing throughout, James Gray might just have created a cinematic masterpiece.