A common symptom of the perceived modern divide between Hollywood big budget film and independent film is a complete dichotomy of scale: you either have a big budget large scale production or you are fed a story of intimacy on a comparatively microscopic scale. There is very little room in the imagination of the viewer to contemplate a film encapsulating both. Films like Apocalypse Now, the Lord of the Rings trilogy, hell, even Die Hard, are mere blips on the radar, fascinating exceptions to the rule that you cannot be both epic and personal. It is in this increasingly rare category we find James Gray’s Lost City of Z.
James Gray, a proven filmmaker of incredible subtlety, proves he is capable of acutely visceral experiences on the screen with what will go down in history (maybe) as the journey into the heart of darkness for the filmmakers of this era. It tells a 21 year journey of British army major Percy Fawcett, who came to be known as one of the great pioneering explorers of the Amazon, who after being sent there to settle a surveying dispute between Brazil in Bolivia, realises there is a more complex society hidden deep in the forest, and returns to Britain determined to go back and try and find it. The film covers his lifelong struggle to be recognised for his beliefs, the relationships with the men he works with along the way, and, in particular, how this effects his home life with his wife and two children.
The film, in production for six years, tells a remarkably complex story, one that fills it’s 140 minute runtime efficiently and vigorously, without a wasted moment or word. The performance given by Charlie Hunnam as Percy Fawcett is the rare performance that acts as both an honest, human depiction of a real life explorer, and an analogy for the deep recesses of the emotions (embattled pride, determination, ambition) explored by his character. The story’s focus, despite all the plot, focuses on his singular determination to be something more than human, something great, leading him down the path of spirituality, away from the church, deep into the heart of the amazon. We are brought to grips with our own unreconcilable emotions and forced to question the motives of these: are Percy’s emotions, desires, and our own, created by the power of his environment, or are they from some unidentifiable deep area of his psyche?
The technical aspects of the film, the struggles with nature, with locals, with the power forces back in his homeland, are masterfully achieved, and do not in any way ever lead to distract from the film’s soul, and in many cases, add dimension and hard evidence to Fawcett’s commitment to his goals.
In many ways, the film is able to escape the traps of many films based on real events by completely subverting them: it tries to look like a film of fiction. You never feel like Gray is grasping for detail, anecdote, or anything that isn’t vital to the film working both as an independent story and a lived, analogous human experience. Scenes of historical dialogue are imbued with an emotional ferocity often hidden and taken away from many modern biopics (The Theory of Everything, The Imitation Game, spring to mind immediately).
Fawcett’s journey becomes, throughout the film, not only something we support and form opinions towards, but something we find correlations to in our own lives- whether we attack our demons and goals with as much aggression as him, where his value system lines up with our own, what we want out of our lives. Fawcett is importantly never paraded or moralised, he is shown as a man with a very specific set of values and priorities, which are so blindingly apparent we are forced to recognise our own and bring them into question.
James Gray’s Lost City of Z is a historical, and personal, epic, destined to go down in the pantheon of great journey films, and, fittingly, films about the power of glory.