At the heart of James Gray’s newest film, The Lost City of Z, lies a tremendous sense of unrestrained longing. At the dawn of the 20th century, the world became a little smaller as the rapid expansion of the British Empire seemed to bring all corners under the same sphere of influence. No longer were the days of Columbus when an explorer could, by chance, happen upon an entirely new continent with new civilizations. Rather, the early 1900s allowed for a certain kind of arrogance—the British, and the British alone, were the conquerors of all nations. There was nothing left to discover, and all sense of mystery fell by the wayside.
Although it is never explicitly mentioned, British officer-turned-explorer Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam) spends much of the runtime grappling with his own existential crisis stemming from this absence of uncertainty. When he is asked by the Royal Geographical Society to venture into Bolivia to map the uncharted land, he zealously agrees. Leaving his pregnant wife (Sienna Miller) and young son back in England, Fawcett ventures out into the vast jungle along with fellow explorer/cartographer Henry Costin (Robert Pattinson).
While mapping his way up river, Fawcett learns from an indigenous person that there exists a hidden city in the center of the Amazon jungle, untouched by white men. Thoughts of this mysterious city occupy Fawcett’s mind as the raft floats back down the wide river, Apocalypse Now-style. Fawcett returns to England soon after, completely engrossed by the idea of this elusive “Lost City of Z”—it has offered him a solution to the neuroses plaguing him by restoring a sense of childlike wonder and amazement within him.
Fawcett’s return to England is expectedly bittersweet. The warm embraces of his family are heartfelt and genuine, but the lingering desire to explore still haunts him. His continued involvement with the Royal Geographical Society seems to further alienate him, as the snobbish Brits are only capable of scoffing at him for his interest in this lost city.
The Lost City of Z subverts past clichés of the adventure genre. After having seen the people of the Amazon, Fawcett returns to England as a defender of the indigenous people—offering that they are, in fact, smart and resourceful. The Brits, sitting in a ornate, mahogany-laden boardroom, mockingly grant him permission to return to the Amazon for the second time. Fawcett leads, along with Costin, another failed mission.
Fawcett’s life was, clearly, one of dedicated repetition. After returning to England after this second expedition, Fawcett must join the army and fight in the trenches of World War I, and Gray juxtaposes the quiet of the jungle with the mortars and machine gun fire of the Western Front. The scenes depicting the grimy, rat-filled trenches on the Somme certainly recall Stanley Kubrick’s filmmaking in the masterful Paths of Glory (1957).
After returning from war, Fawcett, unsurprisingly, decides to lead one final expedition into the Amazon jungle—even if this preoccupation seems to alienate him from his family—especially his son, Jack (Tom Holland). This familial drama comes to the forefront of the story whenever Fawcett returns home, promptly asking the audience whether or not these extensive trips and tours are justified in neglect of family.
Like Percy Fawcett, writer/director James Gray, too, seems to have a preoccupation with the past, returning to a kind of epic filmmaking that is generally unseen in contemporary multiplexes. While today’s spectacle films are comprised of the latest Marvel or Star Wars property, Gray has made a two-hour, 20 minute-long film that recalls epics that predate the commoditization of movies that seems to value brand over storytelling. Gray lingers on images of the blue river water and the vast jungle in a genuine attempt to inspire a sense of wonder and amazement in a postmodern world. Gray, like Fawcett, is searching for something pure and unadulterated, and that should be commended.
Featured Image By Bleeker Street