If not for the ineffably modern hollowness of Charlie Hunnam’s speaking voice, or the distinct rind of 21st century celebrity that still clings to co-star Robert Pattinson like the dying traces of yesterday’s cologne, someone could easily be fooled into thinking that “The Lost City of Z” was shot 40 years ago. In fact, that might be the greatest compliment a viewer could pay writer-director James Gray (“The Immigrant”), a man who seems increasingly determined to revive the glory days of our national cinema, when movies were pictures and auteurs were mavericks. Gray pulls from the past as liberally as Quentin Tarantino, but without the ego — he doesn’t try to process his influences through the slaughterhouse of his own fetishes, he simply wants to Make American Movies Great Again.
Uncommonly sumptuous, patient and textured for a movie with such little emotional heat or staying power, “The Lost City of Z” doesn’t feel like a work of mimicry or homage so much as it does an immaculately crafted throwback — this isn’t just what movies used to look like, it’s also how they used to crackle, move and hum. Oh, what a blessing! Seeing this projected in 35mm is like mana from heaven. The film is further removed from Gray’s own experience than anything that he’s made before, and yet something about it feels indivisibly personal.
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Perhaps that’s because the rambunctious New York native sees something of himself in his latest protagonist, a British artillery officer who becomes consumed by the idea of locating an ancient civilization deep in the heart of the Amazon. Both men dare to challenge the prevailing wisdom of their time, and both men attempt to use the relics of a forgotten epoch in order to do so. Unlike Gray, however, Percy Fawcett (Hunnam) has no idea what he’s looking for, and even less of an idea where to find it.
Based on David Grann’s book of the same name, “The Lost City of Z” adapts a non-fiction account of one of the Western world’s last traditional explorers into a cool-headed historical epic about class, obsession and the profound arrogance of “progress.” Defined by his ignoble lineage (“He’s been rather unfortunate in his choice of ancestors,” huffs a snooty gent), Fawcett begins the film frustrated with his inability to rise above his station. He has a beautiful wife (Sienna Miller) and a son on the way, but having it all is never enough for men who always need to want something more. So if Fawcett is initially dismayed when the Royal Geographical Society orders him to sail to Bolivia and map its Brazilian border, he changes his tune when some crusty old chaps offer him status and glory upon completion of the task. That’s why, in 1906, Fawcett and his men — namely aide de camp Henry Costin, played here by a bearded Robert Pattinson — set sail for dark and distant lands.
And so begins a grand adventure that bounces from England to dark interior of the Brazilian jungle and back again several times over — imagine if “The Conformist” cinematographer Vittorio Storaro had shot “Embrace of the Serpent” in sumptuous 35mm and you’ll be on the right track (it was actually shot by Darius Khondji, and it’s his most beautiful work to date). Given the hyper-referential nature of Gray’s filmmaking, the comparisons to classic films basically invite themselves, though the director always makes sure to stay a step ahead. As soon as you’ve got “Barry Lyndon” on the brain, he’s off to “Apocalypse Now.” In one scene, an abandoned boat on the shores of the Rio Verde conjures memories of “Aguirre: The Wrath of God;” in the next, a different Herzog film is evoked when Fawcett and his party stumble upon an opera production in the middle of the night and nowhere.
One of the benefits of being so self-aware is that Gray is able to sidestep many of the pitfalls you might expect from this kind of movie. For one thing, he refuses to dwell on the exoticism of the jungle, though colonial overtones are inevitably baked into the text. There’s a lot of loincloths, a piranha attack and even a cameo from a snake, but the food, the insects, the whispers of cannibalism… none of that stuff really gets in the way. Fawcett just pushes his way through it, Hunnam playing the accidental cartographer as a natural leader who becomes addicted to the search.
A stiff actor whose flat intonations are usually ripe for parody, Hunnam almost acquits himself well enough to explain Gray’s decision to cast him, delivering in authority what he lacks in range. Over time he reveals himself as yet another one of Gray’s middle-class strivers, refusing to accept that he is inherently inferior to his well-bred neighbors back home. “A man’s rank is not his mettle,” Fawcett declares, the first of Gray’s characters to crystallize and articulate the struggle that defines so many of them. When he discovers some old pottery on the ground, he becomes convinced that he’s found proof of a faded culture that was far more vital and advanced than the Englishmen imagine that the South American “savages” could be or ever were; he becomes convinced that the world doesn’t fit into the hierarchies we fashion for it.
This is very much a movie about why things are happening rather than what will happen next, but things are kept at such a simmer that Fawcett’s passion — complicated in compelling ways by his growing family and the time he spends away from them — never becomes as palpable as it needs to in order for it to boil into a believable obsession.
“Zed: The ultimate piece of the human puzzle,” Fawcett tells his chums, but we’re kept at such a remove from him that it’s hard to tell if his courage is speaking louder than his conviction. That ambiguity can be riveting in its own right, especially as Fawcett begins treating his wife with the same condescension that his colleagues have always dumped on him, but as the years pass, a World War breaks out, and one expedition becomes three, the film begins to suffer from its span and distance. By the time the hero’s oldest son turns into a teenage Tom Holland, it’s too late to believably turn Fawcett into a convincing family man.
In The New York Times’ review of Grann’s book, critic Michiko Kakutani distills Fawcett’s central purpose more succinctly than the film ever does: “It the City of Z really existed… it could undermine the theory of environmental determinism, which argues that societies are captives of geography,” or that men are captives of their station. In that light, it’s easier to appreciate why Gray trusted Fawcett to take him along for the ride. Gray wishes to disprove the idea that entertainments are captives of their eras; he wants to show that just because something has been lost doesn’t mean that its value has been lost along with it. In that respect at least, the director is ultimately more successful on his quest than Fawcett ever was on his own.
“The Lost City of Z” is the closing night presentation at the 2016 New York Film Festival. It will be released in theaters on April 21, 2o17.