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 Percy’s 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 Fawcett’s adventure comes to an end—or a beginning.
To watch James Gray’s 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 best—if not the best—movies of the year. (It’s streaming on Amazon Prime, and I would recommend seeing it on the largest screen possible.)
Admittedly, it’s not a particularly easy sell at almost two and a half hours long. It’s not really a brisk movie, either, though as a proponent, I can’t say that I ever felt weary of the movie’s runtime. It’s 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 film’s opening—the crackling of torches, the hum of Christopher Spelman’s score—and the spell is cast.
It’s Ravel’s second suite of his score for the ballet Daphnis et Chloé that plays over Fawcett’s final journey into the Amazon. It’s 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 doesn’t 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 Fawcett’s 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 it’s telling as to the power of the story that we’re 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 notion—not 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 Fawcett’s 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 Fawcett’s 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 can’t 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 Fawcett’s 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 can’t be said of—and sometimes simply isn’t even attempted by—every movie. The score, for instance, is meant to evoke a mood rather than a moment; it isn’t 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 hasn’t really traveled any more or less than Keir Dullea’s Dr. Bowman. No, The Lost City of Z isn’t 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 doesn’t turn back.
The Lost City of Z is the kind of movie that would feel like a miracle no matter when it was released. It’s 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 don’t do the film justice. It’s more than the sum of its technical triumphs: it’s a dream, and well worth seeking out before the year is over.