As Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam) departs for the jungle for what will be the last time, he and his son Jack (Tom Holland) lean out the window of their train car, waving at the people who wait just to catch a glimpse of the explorers. As they pass the gathered crowds, so too do they pass the sleeping form of Percys wife, Nina (Sienna Miller), and his other two children. It is as if he is dreaming them, as if time has begun to collapse as Fawcetts adventure comes to an endor a beginning.
To watch James Grays The Lost City of Z is to be caught in that dream with him. Movies are often cited as a form of escapism, but there are very few movies that are quite as transporting as this one, and it deserves to be in contention as one of the bestif not the bestmovies of the year. (Its streaming on Amazon Prime, and I would recommend seeing it on the largest screen possible.)
Admittedly, its not a particularly easy sell at almost two and a half hours long. Its not really a brisk movie, either, though as a proponent, I cant say that I ever felt weary of the movies runtime. Its also focused on such a specific story and era that anyone not in the mood for a period drama might overlook it. But all it takes is the films openingthe crackling of torches, the hum of Christopher Spelmans scoreand the spell is cast.
Its Ravels second suite of his score for the ballet Daphnis et Chlo that plays over Fawcetts final journey into the Amazon. Its a composition that is just as lush and verdant as the film and the jungle into which Fawcett is about to descend, and its place in the impressionist movement is also fitting for the way in which Gray makes movies. At the risk of sounding pedantic, Gray is a filmmaker whose visions are of the sort that Hollywood doesnt indulge anymore.
In 1925, British explorer Percy Fawcett embarked on an expedition to find the remains of a city that he had dubbed Z. The expedition was the culmination of Fawcetts research and previous forays into the Amazon, as well as his fervent belief in the existence of a city that would prove that the jungle could sustain complex civilization, and had done so before Europeans ever had. The last communication from the party was on May 29, 1925. Then they disappeared.
In the intervening years, numerous explorers have tried and failed to find what became of Fawcett, and its telling as to the power of the story that were still discussing it, now. Gray is keenly aware of the tendency to romanticize exploration, and what makes The Lost City of Z so remarkable is the way in which he corrects that notionnot by dispelling the perceived beauty in it, but by shedding that light upon every aspect of the story.
We see the toll that exploration takes, not just on the explorers themselves (though they are indeed gruesome) but on Fawcetts family. The minutiae of each expedition are treated with care, with all of it circling back to the political and cultural ramifications of what might be learned, and how those results might reflect upon Fawcetts reputation. His social standing, in turn, affects the lives of his wife and children, who already suffer a loss each time he goes into the jungle. But he cant help his obsession. Even as he recovers from what might have been a fatal injury after serving in the war, all he can think about is whether or not his wound will prevent him from venturing on another expedition.
And yet, despite all that, it is impossible not to understand Fawcetts obsession, or the impulse that drove so many other people, including an unrecognizable Robert Pattinson, to follow him into the unknown despite knowing the risks. Gray is a master of evoking feeling through film, which is the sort of thing that cant be said ofand sometimes simply isnt even attempted byevery movie. The score, for instance, is meant to evoke a mood rather than a moment; it isnt necessary for each moment to be spelled out as long as the feeling of it is clear.
Then, and most incredibly, there are the dream sequences that pass in and out of the film. By the end, the effect of these visions is comparable to the strange beauty of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Arguably, Fawcett hasnt really traveled any more or less than Keir Dulleas Dr. Bowman. No, The Lost City of Z isnt about the creation of man, but the sense of wonderment in discovery, despite all the dangers that come with it, is cut from the same cloth. Fawcett sees the jungle even as he hunkers down in the trenches during wartime; then he passes his family by as he returns to the jungle, a reminder of just how much of their lives he has missed, and how much more time he will lose with them. But he doesnt turn back.
The Lost City of Z is the kind of movie that would feel like a miracle no matter when it was released. Its rich without being excessive, beautiful without glossing over the horrors that often befell explorers, and straightforward in picking apart the colonialist and racist beliefs of the time and the characters where it could just as easily have left them implied or ignored them completely. But words ultimately dont do the film justice. Its more than the sum of its technical triumphs: its a dream, and well worth seeking out before the year is over.