No matter how dangerous their pursuits, the conflicted characters of James Gray’s melodramas seem possessed by fate. Their stubborn choices, grave sacrifices and blind ambitions are byproducts of what they see as fulfilling an inevitable destiny. Think of Ewa’s (Marion Cotíllard) rigorous pursuit of the American dream in The Immigrant, or Bobby’s (Joaquin Phoenix) perilous tango between crime and family in We Own the Night. Each character chooses to leave their comfort zone and explore dangerous new worlds with no room for traditional happy endings.
This motif achieves its purest form in Gray’s riveting The Lost City of Z, an expansive and eccentric adventure saga about the English explorer Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam) who disappeared while trying to find an ancient civilization named Zed in the heart of Amazonia. Over the course of multiple trips to South America, Fawcett finds himself pulled between a life of stability and restless curiosity. Time spent with his wife Nina (Sienna Miller) and their children at home is comforting, but each step into the rough jungles of Bolivia provides the possibility of glimpsing the divine and achieving redemption.
Gray illuminates complicated emotions that underline each reality. Percy has consistently failed to gain promotion as an Army officer because of his father’s disgraceful past. The desire to erase this family blight is elemental and inspires his first surveying trip into the Amazon on behalf of the Royal Geographical Society. The organization hopes to re-map the border between Bolivia and Brazil and stave off war between the two countries.
During this brutal excursion, Percy learns to appreciate the life and death complexities of “the Green Desert,” humbling him in ways the British aristocracy and class system never could. While his acerbic colleague Mr. Costin (an ingenious Robert Pattinson) muses, “We might be a little too English for this jungle,” Percy never falters in his belief that the hidden mysteries of Amazonia could permanently reshuffle assumptions about class and privilege perpetuated by Western colonial supremacy.
Yet The Lost City of Z is not interested in how personal beliefs reflect politics and movements of the time. Instead, Gray’s sweeping film beautifully contemplates intimate struggles to understand what cannot be seen. For Percy, it’s imagining the possibility and glory that comes with discovering Zed. Conversely, Nina must fill in the gaps of her husband’s dangerous experiences from afar, raising the children in a constant state of fear and uncertainty. This uneven dichotomy comes to a head when Percy denies her request to join him on the second exploration. His progressive beliefs only stretch so far, and the argument provokes Nina’s show-stopping monologue that calls out the blatant hypocrisy of patriarchy run amok.
Gray doesn’t quite know what to do with this stunning scene, as it greatly subverts Percy’s characterization up to this point. Conversely, The Lost City of Z is much more comfortable dissecting tests of brotherhood, fatherhood, and loyalty, all of which revolve around one key thematic salvo: “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp.” At times, it feels like the film itself is caught between critiquing this statement’s tragic implications and embracing them.
Working again with the great cinematographer Darius Khondji, Gray condenses jungle landscape to striking medium shots creating a sweltering feeling of endless entrapment. Sweeping shots of the English countryside, best on display during a majestic deer hunt, convey just the exact opposite feeling. Both settings converge in a series of haunting surrealist tableaus, the most stunning of which comes in the final mirrored reflection of Nina disappearing into dense rainforest.
Percy often cavalierly quotes Kipling’s poem The Explorer for inspiration, and one line stands out: “Something lost behind the Ranges. Lost and waiting for you. Go!” The Lost City of Z portrays a good man who decides that honoring this sentiment is paramount to family and country. One could label this a selfish choice. But it remains the only one imaginable for someone so thoroughly enamored with transcendence.