The jungle — and the Amazon in particular — has proven to be a place ripe with storytelling potential. Upon viewing The Lost City of Z, James Gray’s new film based on the best-selling biographical book by journalist David Grann, one is reminded of films such as Aguirre, Wrath of God and Apocalypse Now, which similarly examine the strange lure of the inhospitable wilderness with a mixture of horror and mysticism.
We are first introduced to the soon-to-be-explorer Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam) while he is, fittingly, in the midst of a hunt. It is a sequence which seems to presage the treks into the unknown that are to come. Fawcett, initially, is reluctant to journey into the Amazon. It is only on the insistence of the Royal Geographical Society that Fawcett decides to accept their proposal to map some of Bolivia’s unexplored regions. Soon after arriving, he succeeds not only in going “where no white men” have gone before, but also in discovering mysterious shards of pottery.
Fawcett returns to Britain an acclaimed explorer, but is roundly mocked by the scientific community for suggesting that a great pre-Christian city—a city he dubs “Z”—once existed in the Amazon. He delivers a heated speech that serves as one of the film’s strongest scenes. Gray’s decision to show this speech in full, with unadorned realism and no showy edits, allows the intrigue of the story to give the situation its momentum. It is a stylistic tendency that Gray often uses to the advantage of the film’s meditative tone.
There are a few slightly ‘Hollywood-ized’ aspects of the production that take away from an otherwise artistically-minded film. Hunnam’s Fawcett remains perpetually well-groomed throughout his adventures, which proves particularly jarring in the scenes that take place in the Amazon. At times the lush production value seems to dictate the direction of the content.
The film’s best moments come not when it is trying too hard to convey deep aphoristic meaning, but when it allows itself to approach the material subtly and naturally. Its strength lies mostly in its visual expressiveness, rather than in its dialogue. The Malick-esque final sequence of the film, which is highly symbolic and open-ended, does justice to the ambiguity of the real-life events that inspired it. We are left with a transcendental feeling of mystery, imbuing the film with a lingering quality that makes Gray’s work greater than the sum of its parts.
Image: Frederick Catherwood