In the films of James Gray, nothing comes easy. Survival is often sought at a high price. Walloped in deep shadow.... or inky blacks of a midnight trainyard.... or the halcyon golden of a cramped New York City tenement... or especially in the oppressive and humid jungles of South America, his films are a litmus test for the human experience. In his latest film, "The Lost City of Z" (adapted from the book of the same name by David Grann), his survivalist instinct manifests itself in a literal uncharted adventure that sees British officer Col. Percy Fawcett braving the depths of the Amazonian jungle and getting lost both in body and spirit. Gorgeously framed and edited, impeccably acted and featuring a classicism whose power is often overwhelming, I find it hard to believe Gray can ever top himself after seeing one of his films. "The Immigrant" (2014), though it bombed theatrically and at festivals, was a masterpiece of fragility and trapped emotions in the visage of Marion Cotillard's single immigrant female status. I love that film with no bounds. And now, "The Lost City of Z" has made me love something even more rabidly.
As Col. Fawcett, Charlie Hunnam plays the explorer with a glacial muscularity, rarely belying the fear or apprehension he has with each successive visit to the Amazon jungle. Initially sent there to map out the terrain for a British geographical society, he begins to hear whispers of a lost magical city. He does see clues- pottery and elaborately carved statues of rocks- that are revealed to him like glimmers from God above before they're tragically taken away from him, either through natural causes or weak willed human stupidity. Three visits to the jungle in all, the final embarked upon with his growing son that has disastrous consequences Also along for most of the ride is his exacting aide, Henry Costin (played to perfection by a quiet, interior Robert Pattinson). Together, the duo represent explorers with intelligence, wit and careful consideration of their unknown surroundings.
Dotted with Rudyard Kipling or Robert Louis Stevenson anecdotes of native violence- one in which features a nasty spill into a piranha infest river- Gray overrides these random conflicts of culture with more fraternal moments, such as when one of the population the explorers meet drops a colored liquid into the water and fish slowly pop to the surface, allowing him to grab a few for supper. In seconds, the fish resume their underwater crawl, causing Costin to remark how amazing it is for these people to only take what they need and nothing more. It's these moments of gentle observation that feel so true and educational that sets "The Lost City of Z" apart from other films of its ilk. More low-key than any standard Hollywood production, its a film whose beauty is unassuming and it sneaks up on you.
Part of that sneaking beauty lies also in the performance of Sienna Miller as Fawcett's dutiful and understanding wife. Left at home with their kids... more years apart than together it seems.... her role as Nina stands out among the boy crew. Soft when necessary and strikingly hard when pressed, Gray chooses to end the film focusing on her. It's a brave move. After spending so much time with Fawcett and his compulsive trips to the jungle in search of a possibly imaginative place, Nina becomes just as lost and mentally forlorn as her husband. Wandering off into an imagined jungle of her own, Gray seems to be saying that the greatest sacrifice was not the adventure itself, but the person who allowed the adventurer to test the fate of an unforgiving environment at the expense of his loved ones. It's a sobering idea and yet another achingly perfect finale to a James Gray effort.