The Lost City of Z is the latest film by James Gray, one of the best directors working today, despite his whining about not earning enough to be able to afford a house in a recent interview with Vulture. The movie tells the extraordinary true story of British adventurer Percival Fawcett who, unlike all of the mainstream scientific and government authorities in the early 20th century, did not believe that the people of the Amazon were uncivilised savages. He believed that there had been a great civilisation in the area, and set out to find evidence in the form of an Eldorado-type city. He went on many expeditions into the Amazon basin until he disappeared in 1925. No one knows what happened to him. The film covers his adventures from World War I, with a big scene set in the Battle of the Somme, through his travels in the Amazon up to the time of his disappearance.
Fawcett is played by Charlie Hunnam, who has the right physicality for the role, but Robert Pattinson as his assistant steals the show. Hunnam is fine, but Pattinson’s charisma makes you wish the roles had been reversed. Sienna Miller plays Fawcett’s wife, who was completely devoted to her husband’s crazy ideas. Miller turns in another fantastic performance, proving once again that she is one of the finest female performers on screen today.
Rather than being a heroic adventure epic, the story focuses on the psychological and personal experiences of Fawcett and his associates, similar to Herzog’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God. The fact that anyone is able to make a film like this now is pretty stunning—it would have been more in place during the 1970s or even before. The director has described it as like a David Lean film but with a “slightly more hallucinogenic feel. Because [the protagonist] went to the jungle and sorta went mad.”
Gray wrote Francis Ford Coppola to see if he had any advice about filming in the jungle, and was told “don’t go”—exactly the same advice Coppola received from Roger Corman before filming Apocalypse Now. It does not appear that that Gray had the problems Coppola experienced, however—although it would be hard for any film to be as traumatic as the shooting of Apocalypse Now.
The Lost City of Z was beautifully shot on 35mm film, something that is becoming a rarity in this digital age. According to IMDB, that added $700,000 to the budget, although I think that’s a bit exaggerated, as shooting on film can actually be cheaper than renting high-end digital cameras. It’s great that someone has the audacity to make this kind of movie at all.
The thing that completely makes the film is the very last shot, which makes it almost an instant classic and gives it a magical quality.
The disc includes a making-of featurette and interviews.