Movie review: ‘The Lost City of Z’

James Gray tries to save cinema with daring, sweeping adventure

This image released by Amazon Studios/Bleecker Street Films shows Charlie Hunnam in a scene from "The Lost City of Z." (Aidan Monaghan/Amazon Studios/Bleecker Street via AP)



James Gray, director of great films like “The Immigrant” and “Two Lovers,” is making the kind of movies no one else makes anymore. They are gorgeous, epic and romantic — and they are made with an assured touch and a classic sensibility. There is, however, a reason for it. No one sees them anymore. And unless they start seeing them, James Gray won’t be making them anymore, either.

His latest, “The Lost City of Z,” (pronounced by the British as “The Lost City of Zed”) about a turn-of-the-century explorer in search of an ancient civilization, is no different. It’s enormously well shot and takes full advantage of the dense, mysterious and infinitely dangerous Amazon.

And it’s exactly the kind of thing we’re going to lose out on when TV overtakes the theatrical experience. But unless your television is 25-50 feet wide (unlikely), you’re not going to have the same experience with a movie like this in your living room as you would in a theater. Movies like this will cease to exist.

Structurally, James Gray’s film is an enduring and frustratingly complex piece of storytelling, told as fluidly and beautifully one of those enormous classic epics of the 50s and 60s. Those who are familiar with the true story of Percy Fawcett’s countless expeditions to South America to find an ancient civilization, which I won’t spoil for the uninitiated, will know just how difficult this story is to tell. For Fawcett, the British explorer played by a glowing and persistent Charlie Hunnam, it was a downward spiral of passion and obsession in pursuit of one hopeless sense of discovery. And it all started with an expedition to map out the borders as a neutral third party to Bolivia and Brazil, who were undergoing a land dispute.

On that initial journey to the Amazon, Fawcett is forced to choose between personal prestige and respect, and being available to his wife during the birth of their first child. Let’s just say he doesn’t choose the latter. And this is before his obsession really begins to take hold. His aide-de-camp, Henry Costin (Robert Pattinson), runs into him apprehensively while trying to find out what kind of a man he is. The Amazon they finally reach is governless, ruled by few. And it’s economy is run by rubber plantations, where natives and foreigners alike, use what they call “black gold” (rubber) as their currency. It’s on this mapmaking mission where Fawcett and his aide-de-camp discover the signs of a city that existed long before.

A scientific observation and discovery mocked by the current scientific community, who refused to acknowledge that “savages” (people who aren’t white) could live in any sophisticated means.

It’s Fawcett’s single-minded persistence and dedication to achieve greatness in the Amazon that finds himself convincing others to fund his trips back, while also completely ignoring the wants and needs of his family, who continually grow old and in size absent of a real father figure. True to Fawcett’s singular perspective, Gray moves through the film with all of these lingering dramatic details in the background while focusing on Fawcett’s obsession as he repeatedly visits the Amazon and continuously runs into many unfortunate circumstances that keep him from completing his mission.

And it gets even more complex when Fawcett, after briefly coming to terms with the impossibility of his journey, finds a way to bring a piece of home with him on a trip. It’s a daring compromise, almost to a fault, but we’re so convinced by the integrity Hunnam conveys that we’re forced to buy it.

James Gray is one of the few remaining filmmakers left making uncompromising movies for the big screen. The rest have long since abandoned the traditional theatrical experience and have found a home on the small screen, where they are free to produce the kind of content they want to, the way they want to. Support James Gray. See “The Lost City of Z.”

‘The Lost City of Z,’

directed by

James Gray

Run time: 141 minutes

3.5 stars out of 4

Rated PG-13 for violence, disturbing images, brief strong language and some nudity.


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