There’s a sumptuous quiet to the opening moments of ‘The Lost City of Z’, director James Gray’s first foray away from the New York boroughs of his previous films. First, we hear the sounds of the jungle – a clichéd move, sure, for a film that depicts the life and trials of noted explorer Percy Fawcett, who spent years searching for the eponymous civilisation in (until then) uncharted parts of the Amazon. However, it’s the beguiling image that slowly comes to accompany those sounds that truly establishes the film and settles you into Gray’s confident hands.
Gently, he reveals a flickering scene of tribesmen performing an unknowable ceremony in a striking, painterly manner, almost a still-life portrait in its composition. This may seem like too many words to spend on the first minute of a film (and, granted, what is essentially just a title card) but it so perfectly encapsulates the film on the whole. Just like in those opening moments, Gray is taking a cliché – this time the well-worn tale of the obsessive explorer – but combining it with calm and confident classical filmmaking that is austere in its formal certitude and patient storytelling, yet satisfyingly grounded in its generosity.
After all, Fawcett is a figure deserving of more than just the de rigeour filmmaking and storytelling that most biopics adhere to. A British Army officer in the early 20th century, over the course of twenty years Fawcett would lead several expeditions into the heart of the Amazon rainforest. Though this began with the purpose of mapping the area for the Royal Geographical Society, eventually these journeys were borne out of a compulsive belief that his destiny was to find the ancient civilisation that gives the film its title.
SWITCH: 'LOST CITY OF Z' TRAILER
Technically, the film is a marvel. Darius Khondji’s seductive lensing is simply beautiful, and mesmerising in its constant probing and studying of landscapes both natural and psychological. The editing is similarly enthralling, as John Axelrad and Lee Haugen craft woozy, elliptical sequences, with one showy match cut in particular that directly brings to mind Kubrick or Lean. Though for the most part the performances aren’t quite as strong, that’s not exactly a dealbreaker. Charlie Hunnam, finally free of the nondescript American accent that flattens all of his other performances, acquits himself well in the lead, excelling in moments of quiet grace – as well as a particularly bombastic display of public oratory in a mid-film sequence that brings some welcome levity to proceedings.
However, it is in the film’s treatment of time, and by extension it’s highlighting of one performer in particular, where things get most interesting.
At this point in her career, it may not be ridiculous to call Sienna Miller the new Thelma Ritter. Okay, yes, it is still ridiculous, but hear me out. After a string of thankless "supportive wife" roles, particularly in ‘Foxcatcher’ and ‘American Sniper’, it seems like almost a meta joke to cast her in this sly subversion of those parts. Because here, her Nina Fawcett is no token attempt at giving the hero something he might lose (but won’t) or a nagging obstacle that he must overcome – she is, get this, an actual character. Crazy, I know. Jokes aside, Miller lets loose what she must have been itching to do on the sets of those other films, as she imbues Nina with charm, wit and a fierce devotion to her husband, but never at the cost of her own agency or desires. Along with her director, they portray her as a sort of proto-feminist, constantly bristling at the ways in which the society she lives in pigeonholes and ignores her, and how her husband occasionally does the same thing.
...calm and confident classical filmmaking that is austere in its formal certitude and patient storytelling, yet satisfyingly grounded in its generosity.
Best of all, the film has no interest in forgetting about her or undermining her position. Instead, just as the jungle insinuates itself into scenes set in Britain, so too does the spectre of Fawcett’s home life haunt his time in the jungle. She becomes a constant reminder of the price he is paying in pursuing this element of his life, and the fact that each time he comes home his children are played by different actors is a perfect extension of this. Sure, it’s also just a practicality and a practice used by many films, but here it’s given an extra thematic heft. Just as we are meeting new people, so too is Percy. As each trip takes up years of his life, he is forced to reckon with the fact that he is returning home to complete strangers that he helped create.
The film does a wonderful job of crafting a strange, ambling narrative out of the life of a man who defies easy explanation, not least because of the mysterious disappearance that marks him as an infamous figure. But when it does get to that episode, as Fawcett takes on one ill-fated expedition too many, the build up of quiet sadness and wonder is breathtaking. The film’s bravura final image blends together Fawcett’s two worlds in a whimsical yet understated manner, firmly cementing this as a well above average entry into a particularly over-stuffed genre.