If you were to imagine Indiana Jones were directed by a David Lean or a Richard Attenborough, you may get an idea as to what you can expect from James Gray’s The Lost City of Z. Based on the true story of British explorer, Col. Percival Fawcett, it is an adventure film filled with the iconography of spear-wielding natives, lush green jungles and hidden caves strewn with skulls and archaeological artefacts. But whereas Spielberg’s original ‘Indy’ movie payed homage to genre and the 1950’s serials, this is put together with a higher class, from its cinematography to its writing, and the result is something that is as quietly epic as it is utterly absorbing.
The fact that ‘Z‘ is based on fact is something that’s actually never stated right until the very end of the film, as if the director would rather his audience become swept up in the magic and mystery of the adventure without getting too focused on the realities of the story. It works: at certain stages through the film – a sequence in which Fawcett meets a Russian fortune teller in the trenches of the First World War being the most obvious example – the film becomes dreamlike in the way it represents Fawcett’s longing for the jungle and adventure.
Cleverly, Gray uses these moments as a way of digging deep into the subconscious of Fawcett’s character; something Gray is quite clearly fascinated with right from the very beginning. When we’re introduced to Fawcett, he is hunting a deer on a country estate and makes the kill in spite of others protesting that there is no path for him to follow it. This is Gray’s superb writing perfectly setting up the main themes and central quest of the story before introducing us to the other elements of Fawcett’s personality, his want to be brought into the inner-circle of his peers, that also plays an important part in the story.
Many questions are asked of the central subject’s life, portraying him as progressive in the way he believes native cultures of the Amazon could be far more civilised than the western world would have thought at the time, yet perhaps slightly more ignorant when it comes to his wife and her ambitions. Any answers we do get are complex or ambiguous, or most importantly human, and this is one of the film’s most compelling layers.
As well as being rich in character – even the supporting players are given plenty of personality – the film works on a number of different levels as well. The cinematography from Amour’s Darius Khondji is amongst some of the finest of this year so far, with some of the shots looking as if they’ve been painted onto the screen. The performances across the board are all strong as well, from Charlie Hunnam who proves himself a real star for the first time in my eyes, to Sienna Miller who, surprisingly, comes close to stealing the show with her career-best turn as Nina Fawcett.
Fully functional on all accounts then, The Lost City of Z is one of 2017’s best films so far. It’s a beautiful piece of work with great depth and subtext, impeccably performed and wonderfully written. With so many big releases out at the moment, this is one hidden little gem that’s well worth seeking out as soon as you can.
Image credit to http://www.impawards.com