Title: The Lost City of Z
Language: English, Spanish, Portuguese
Genre: Adventure, Biography, Drama, History
Director/Writer: James Gray
based on the book by David Grann
Music: Christopher Spelman
Cinematography: Darius Khondji
An epic biography of British explorer Percy Fawcett, at first glance, doesn't seem to be in the American filmmaker James Gray's elements, his fifth feature film is also his first venture into a period setting, traversing two continents and spanning two decades (from 1905 to 1925), as our current fatigue towards the obsequiously awards-coveting biopic genre still persists, could Mr. Gray's offering dissipate the lethargy of blasé and inscribe his own footprint in the rut?
The answers are no and yes. The blasé timber lies in the material itself, it is after all, a heroic story (tinged with a pinch of mythos) begging for adulation, and Gray chooses to recount Percy's (Hunnam) extraordinary life in a faithfully chronological order and establishes him as an everyman but bristling with vim and vigor, thus we could safely rule out the imperious internecine conflicts à la Klaus Kinski in Werner Herzog's two expedition pieces, during his perilous adventures among the tropical jungles and waterways. The character development is formulaic and painstakingly eschews a larger-than-life approach, for example, a full-bearded Robert Pattinson downplays Percy's fellow explorer Henry Costin, shadowing his footsteps but is left with no florid delivery to chew on, neither does Hunnam’s taciturn hero, but perversely, that is where Gray makes his mark.
The film is anything but a hagiography, which entails that Gray's script gives the room to let his characters live and breathe as authentic as possible, emotions are measured, feelings are understated, words are superfluous (except for the sporadic wrangles and squabbles, whether they are marital, familial or academic, Angus Macfadyen palpably plays an exasperating benefactor who is not prepared for the expedition and comes off as a petty denigrator), but the awe towards an unfamiliar culture is immeasurable (however primordial and savage it transpires), so what we are privileged to watch is a series of minutely orchestrated fluxes of Percy's life: the first two botched voyages, his WWI stint, the calm days after and his last outing with his eldest son Jack (Holland) to look for a closure towards his life-long pursuit, all is rendered with ineffable beauty through the craft of its art production and Darius Khondji's stunning camerawork, which doesn’t operate the usual method of sweeping aerial shots foregrounding the Amazonian locale, but takes a closer inspection of the mysterious lushness buzzed with vitality and danger, simultaneously. The nocturnal ritual sequences during the climax are transcendent, when our protagonists are carried off-screen to their ambiguous destiny, what we see is the misty, ethereal environs, shimmering with a dark-blue sheen, that is a reverent homage to the unknown and the divine. So is the final shots, focusing on Nina (Miller), Percy's forbearing wife, whatever has happened, happened, it is what her husband and son want, she has to come to terms with that. So a gorgeous finishing touch shows Nina seemingly wend her way into a tropical forest, to unfold that hopes are never dashed, even it is solely for her sake, a reunion (or reconciliation) is powerfully but quietly sublimated, however ambivalent it looks.
Hunnam exudes a more internal aspect of his acting range through his deeply immersed effort, his version of Percy is a hyperbole-free doer, a trailblazer, a leader; whereas Miller, ostensibly is saddled with a traditional wife role, who is platitudinously burdened with child-bearing and an often absent husband, but doesn't sit contently in the back seat, Gray's sensible script commendably amps up her narrative arc, and Miller shines beautifully when being granted a chance to express her feelings and views, counterpointing the milieu's conservative reality.
Perhaps out of the respect of his subject, James Gray doesn't deign to buoy up the narrative with cinematic gimmicks or unwarranted action enhancers, thus the final outcome is an attentive, albeit conventional adaptation of a real-life adventurer combating his way through the untrodden path, it takes some patience to dawdle through its longueur but ultimately it is certainly a rewarding viewing experience.
referential points: Werner Herzog's AGUIRRE, THE WRATH OF GOD (1972, 7.7/10), FITZCARRALDO (1982, 7.0/10); Ciro Guerra's EMBRACE OF THE SERPENT (2015, 8.1/10).