True historical epics have been lacking in recent years, as many of the latest film attempts have fallen flat (Ben Hur, King Arthur). Director James Gray’s breathtaking new film The Lost City of Z, however, proves that the genre still has much potential.
The story, which spans more than 20 years, begins at the turn of the 19th century as we first meet Percival Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam), an ambitious young officer in the British military. Despite his best efforts, Fawcett continues to be held back from achieving his potential due to a familial line that is viewed as unfavorable, causing his impressive achievements as a military officer to often go ignored. He then jumps at a chance to go on an expedition to the Amazon, hoping to increase his family’s standing, which proves far more consequential than he could have imagined. The story spans from the imposing jungles of the unexplored Amazon, to the English countryside, to the war torn battlefields of World War I and proves to both be epic and personal in its portrayal of its characters.
The film touts a stellar cast, from its main characters down to the minor roles. Hunnam, who rose to fame through the FX show Sons of Anarchy, gives the best performance of his career in a very nuanced yet dynamic role. Even more shocking is the performance by Robert Pattinson, who plays Fawcett’s right hand man—a drunk who is soft-spoken yet experienced and driven. Sienna Miller, who plays Fawcett’s wife, is also fantastic in portraying how his spouse changes during the large swaths of time that he is absent, raising their children alone. Tom Holland, now famous for being the new Spiderman, gives a layered performance as Fawcett’s eldest son who both resents and respects his father for his absences, and has been forced to mature without him. Also noteworthy are some of the character actors who make appearances, particularly Ian McDiarmid, who in many ways is the closest thing that the film has to a true antagonist, playing the president of the Royal Geographical Society Sir George Goldie.
The cinematography stands out from the first shot of the movie. Director of Photography Darius Khondji, whose credits include Seven and Midnight in Paris, has pulled off an incredible feat with this film. Shooting in 35mm, gives a mixture of lush colors and film grain. He fills the screen with spectacular visuals. There is less of an emphasis on flashy camerawork and more reliance on stellar shot composition, highlighted by the opening shot of the film which also acts as the title sequence. The shots range from mysterious and enchanting, to haunting and disturbing. From images of lush jungle, to the dimly lit title sequence, to wide sweeping shots of battle, the camerawork is impressive. Much of the cinematography is evocative of Apocalypse Now.
The Lost City of Z is one of the best films of the year thus far. It manages to have moments that are breathtakingly epic, yet remain very personal and character driven. James Gray’s film does justice to its material in portraying the wonder of exploration, as well as the sacrifices made in the undertakings. The combination of great technical filmmaking, with its fantastic cinematography, and impressive performances from its cast comes together to make a special experience that should be seen on the big screen.