New York Film Festival
In 2014, while still in the thralls of my passionate obsession with James Gray’s “The Immigrant,” I attended the Telluride Film Festival where, lo and behold, Gray himself was attending to present a screening of Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now.” (I won’t go into too much detail about how I choked on approach to chat with him outside a screening.) He also penned an essay for the festival’s program lavishing praise on Coppola’s masterpiece, writing, “The film poses questions without any attempt to provide definitive answers, and its profound ambiguities are integral to its enduring magic.”
Of course, this only popped into my mind about an hour of the way through Gray’s latest work, “The Lost City of Z.” The film’s jungle trek in search of a mythic destination, of course, bears many surface similarities to “Apocalypse Now.” Going deeper, however, little else in the Amazonian journey of Charlie Hunnam’s Percy Fawcett corresponds to the descent into madness of Martin Sheen’s Captain Willard. Fawcett’s quest is one for pride, not shame. In his attempts to discover a lost civilization among the South Americans derided as “savages” by the Brits, he hopes to provide both a cultural corrective and a reputation restoration to his tarnished family name.
There’s an earnestness to Fawcett’s trips (yes, plural, because it takes a trio of them) that feels entirely from before the moral malaise of “Apocalypse Now,” due in large part to Gray’s unabashed classicism. He’s even got his own match cut to pay winking homage to David Lean’s “Lawrence of Arabia.” Yet “The Lost City of Z” feels caught between two periods, the old-fashioned spectacle of the Hollywood cinematic epic and the more self-conscious, interrogative New Hollywood style. To return briefly to Gray’s own terminology, the film lacks some magic because its ambiguity exists within a structure that prefers resolution and triumph.
Gray always has a firm command of what’s happening on screen, and director of photography Darius Khondji captures it in luscious hues and sweeping movement. What exactly is meant by Fawcett’s multiple journeys, each of which test his commitment to his fellow explorers, country and family, is not always clear. Removed from the personal authenticity of Gray’s early work and the radical sincerity of “The Immigrant,” narrative resonance is somewhat lacking.
Even so, “The Lost City of Z” is still a sumptuous delight of visual splendor. Thirty minutes could probably be trimmed to help sustain more momentum, though such cuts might sacrifice some of the delicate character arcs. As the film progresses, Fawcett’s right-hand man Henry Costin (Robert Pattinson, playing his supporting role with the humility of a great character actor) gradually grows uncertain that their mission to locate their missing city can bear any fruit. At the same time, however, Fawcett’s son Jack (Tom Holland, recalling his superb turn in “The Impossible“) moves from disenchantment with his father to full allegiance and companionship. Witnessing one rise as the other falls makes for a more unexpected journey within the film – and one of its few facets that’s not entirely straightforward. B /