The Beauty of Obsession.
“To dream to seek the unknown. To look for what is beautiful is its own reward. A man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?”
This is a movie I’ve talked about endlessly with others but one I never fully expressed my passion about. I have seen the film again twice (as a final film to watch as 2017 drew to a close, while the other was a rewatch with a friend who had not seen it).
It’s rare to come across a movie that’s not just flat out great, but a genuine masterpiece in every regard: writing. acting. storytelling, cinematography, and editing. It’s easy to love a movie but to fully feel passionate about it is something else. One that refuses to leave the mind, as its images, sounds, and feelings you had never leave. There’s an old expression, “It’s a sign of a good movie if you can’t stop thinking about it” but in some instances, I feel that can be bullshit, especially when you watch some unspeakable trainwrecks you can’t get over.
However, this is one of those instances where the expression really means something.
The film in question: The Lost City of Z, is a historical epic by director James Gray based on the expeditions of Percival Harrison Fawcett and his obsession with finding a lost civilization in the Amazonian jungles. Gray is no stranger to directing historical pieces, as he’s cut his teeth before on such films as We Own the Night and The Immigrant. The Lost City of Z is the first film that made him leave his comfort zone, trading the streets of New York for England, the jungle and the trenches of WWI. Lost City of Z was a radical departure for Gray and he seems to be continuing down a new path with his next two pictures (Ad Astra will be a space film while I Am Pilgrim will be an international spy thriller). Of all of Gray’s films I’ve seen so far, this might just be his apex, his magnum opus, the film that shows his full potential as a filmmaker and a contender for one of the best films of the decade thus far.
Percival Harrison Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam) is an officer in the early 1900s who finds himself being requested by those in higher positions of power and prestige from the Royal Geographical Society – RGS for short -to help in surveys amongst brewing tensions between Brazil and Bolivia over the booming rubber trade. Fawcett is hired by Sir George Goldie (Ian McDiarmid) who suggests to Fawcett that by taking this expedition, Fawcett could reclaim his family’s name and respect among the royals, as his father was a disgraced drunkard. Fawcett sets out on adventure with an aide de camp by the name of Henry Costin (Robert Pattinson), a drunk but loyal man who becomes Fawcett’s most reliable ally while dealing with the dangers of the jungle: disease, dwindling resources, unfriendly natives, and vicious wildlife.
As Fawcett and company venture into the jungle, he discovers something he never thought he would discover beyond the branches and vines – pottery and symbols. He deduces that these findings must be evidence of a civilization deep within, one he names “Zed”. However, this obsession begins to devour his world entirely at the cost of other’s lives, his sanity, and the family he has so proudly started with his wife Nina (Sienna Miller).
Fair warning: anyone expecting an Indiana Jones type film should leave those expectations at the door or you’ll be disappointed. This film is a character study on the grandest scale, through and through. Despite the two and a half hour running time and methodical pacing, the film never loses your attention, even as Fawcett (almost calmly) loses his marbles in trying to find Zed. It’s always consistently engaging thanks to the intense focus on Fawcett. Even as he fucks up or becomes increasingly alienated to his friends and family, you never feel like he’s less than sympathetic. You understand where he’s coming from completely and by the end, you feel almost just as at peace like he does when the final destination has been reached. Any compelling lead character needs an actor to fill that role and thankfully, lead Charlie Hunnam kills it as Fawcett. If one had any doubt that Hunnam was just a pretty face, look no further than this movie to prove what a talent he can be. The amount of emotion he puts on display in this is incredible and he just oozes charisma and charm as the film progresses (one scene in particular where he argues in a hall with his fellow professors and explorers about Zed’s existence is nothing short of amazing). Hey Hollywood! This is the stuff he should be cast in, not big budget blockbusters like Pacific Rim or King Arthur.
The rest of the cast is just as remarkable. You’ve never seen Robert Pattinson like this before, with a scruffy beard and mumbling dialogue, but he plays his role with wonderfully dry wit as Fawcett’s loyal sidekick. It’s hard not to smile whenever he says something funny or ironic about the situations his character Mr. Costin gets himself into. Sienna Miller also provides a lot of emotion to a character one would have simply seen as a one note, cardboard cutout as Fawcett’s wife. She’s intelligent and willing to confront him on his shit but also respectful and wonderfully well spoken. Her final scene, in particular, is a genuine heartbreaker as she reflects on the man her husband was and how she’ll never stop waiting for him, even after the real Nina Fawcett passed away in the late 1950s. Finally, Tom Holland shows there’s more to him than just Spider-Man with his role as one of Fawcett’s kids named Jack who joins Percy on his final expedition. He shows a wonderful amount of dramatic range, especially in one scene where he confronts his father’s obsession.
On a technical level, the film is astonishing. James Gray decided to direct the film in the jungles of Colombia for the sequences in Brazil and the results are nothing short of stunning. Working with legendary cinematographer Darius Khondji (Se7en, Okja) and using 35mm, the film’s visuals are peerless when it comes to detail and immersion. From the hazy color palette that utilizes lots of greens and yellows to the precise camera movements, even at its most chaotic, you feel like you’re right there with Fawcett and company. Even the non -jungle set scenes continue this visual style to the very end and it all looks wonderful. The editing is also equally clever, featuring seamless transitions from scene to scene (one match cut shows a stream of liquor going down the drain to fading to a scene of a train going by) and stuff that would seem artsy and pretentious never does thanks to the film’s assuredness and confidence in its storytelling. The film’s use of music is also top shelf too, from choice selections of composers like Mozart to Johann Strauss while Christopher Spelman’s original score crafts an ambient but utterly calming original score.
I can pinpoint the exact moment I knew I was watching a masterpiece when Hunnam’s character calls out his fellow professors for being ignorant fools. There’s something about this scene that just clicked with me and I don’t know the specific reason why: Was it the way this scene was shot? Was it the sheer righteous emotion pouring through Fawcett during that scene? Was it the performances of the actors? Was it that the film has us share the same sense of discovery and joy that Fawcett does when finding these traces that, as he puts it, “will help us find the missing piece of the human puzzle”? Was it all of the above? Probably. Even as the film reaches its climax, it gave me a sense of mysticism I haven’t seen in a film in a long time. It was something truly ethereal, something that give me sense of transcendence both in the writing and what was depicted on screen. I won’t say what happens specifically because it’s something that must be seen to be believe (especially the film’s final shot) but it was something that melted my heart as much as it took my breath away and crushed my soul.
There will be many films I will see in my life, both old and new, but I doubt few will give me the feelings that The Lost City of Z did. Thank you, James Gray and company, for bringing this story to life.