Each of Gray’s films at least partially centers on Conradian questions of self-discovery.
James Gray, among the most consistently neglected of America’s great film directors, has long been praised by his few but vocal supporters for upholding the idioms and techniques of classic filmmaking. But Gray’s greatest strength as a filmmaker—and his most singular virtue as an artist—is his understanding that cinema, even during the “classical” phase he so often channels, has always been a modern art. His newest film is The Lost City of Z, a lyrical period piece about a theoretical lost civilization whose ruins are said to be buried deep within the Amazon rainforest, and its sensibilities are similar to a David Lean epic or a classic Hollywood adventure along the lines of The African Queen or even Budd Boetticher’s obscure City Beneath the Sea. Obsessed with finding the mythical Z (pronounced “Zed”) is British explorer Percival “Percy” Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam), and through Gray’s patient storytelling and brilliant stylistic transcendence, the jungle that haunts his mind becomes the same space in which we find ourselves, demonstrating cinema’s lifelong ability to show us things we never thought we’d see and take us places we’d always hoped to go.
In adapting the bestselling book of the same name, Gray takes a fair amount of liberty in remodeling writer David Grann’s straightforward historical account and creating a more subjective internal discussion surrounding themes of colonialism and personal longing that borders on spiritual obsession. Beginning with Fawcett’s original 1906 expedition and charting his path up until his final excursion in 1925, Gray illustrates how the British artillery officer and decorated WWI veteran became as much a mythical figure as the forgotten civilization for which he was restlessly seeking, placing the film closer to Heart of Darkness than something like The Bridge Over the River Kwai. In fact, each of Gray’s films at least partially centers on Conradian questions of self-discovery; The Lost City of Z is merely the first to visualize the experience on a scale this grand, sweeping and breathtaking. His approach to cultural ethnography, forever incisive but hitherto subtle and more lowkey, here takes on a broader and more historical framework. Percy’s personal desire to unearth an advanced native society is a measure to which we experience his desire to reshape the nature of human history itself, a notion decried and disdained by his fellows in the Royal Geographical Society, a group beholden to white supremacy.
But as the inevitability of time wears away at him, Fawcett’s search for Z has less to do with rewriting history and more to do with human nature. His three treks into the jungle are to different extents dangerous and exhilarating, filled with discovery and camaraderie. He and his crew—including his sturdy and witty sidekick Henry Costin (Robert Pattinson, delightful)—encounter hostile natives and bloodthirsty piranhas. The thrill of adventure is evident, and so is the literal and figurative cost. The Lost of City of Z is the rare adventure epic that spends as much time in civilization as it does in the uncharted jungle, and Gray proves just as curious about social customs of early 20th century Brits as the indigenous tribes of colonial Amazonia. Most crucially, Gray isn’t just aware of what Fawcett might discover, but also what he might destroy, revealing his hypocrisy and giving weight to his colonialist complicity. The Lost City Z makes the salient case that in order to understand adventure, one must first confront it.
When Fawcett, after displaying considerable heroism on the WWI battlefield following two unsuccessful and nearly fatal forays into the jungle, claims that his desire to discover Z has nothing to do with queen and country, let alone his minor social status (early in the film, a snide royal remarks that Fawcett has a made a “poor choice of ancestry,” as if such a thing were at all possible), we sense that he is cut from the same phantasmagorical cloth as the eponymous city itself. Gray makes a point to imbue Fawcett with certain ethereal qualities as he drifts in and out of the lives of his wife, Nina (Sienna Miller), and their three children, including eldest son, Jack (Tom Holland). The film’s most masterful touch is Gray’s conception of Fawcett’s ambition as self-erasure; the director’s creative depiction of his tragic demise—the real circumstances surrounding his disappearance will forever remain a mystery—is deeply layered with spiritual meaning and allegory, evoking the sublime connection between extermination and exaltation.
The story’s truest tragedy, though, is the one Fawcett leaves in his wake. Nina proves to be another of Gray’s female characters whose fate is tied to her male counterpart, and while this initially reads as a profound shortcoming, the film’s final shot—a magnificent image that rivals the one that concludes Gray’s previous film, The Immigrant—proves that the film belongs to her as much as it belongs to anyone. Given that Gray spends so much time with Fawcett in the jungle, Nina’s story, constricted by the economics of time and space alone, isn’t given nearly as much time or onscreen exploration. But in spending so much time away from her, Gray is nevertheless able to construct for her a dramatic arc as complex as the one he constructs for Fawcett. Both characters are ultimately absorbed by questions they can never hope to answer, but through the mastery of Gray’s cinema, we come to experience their respective journeys as our own.