Throughout his career, James Gray has built a signature around films that seem ineffably out of time – not exactly pastiches, or period recreations, but films that just might conceivably have actually been released in another era, thereby making their nods to the present all the more unsettling and uncanny. His latest film, The Lost City of Z, continues even further in this direction, taking its cues from the 2009 book of the same name by David Grann, which tells the story of British explorer Percy Fawcett’s repeated efforts to find a lost city on the Amazon after being sent there by the Royal Geographical Society in 1905 to map the Bolivian-Brazilian border. Between that period and his disappearance in the Amazon in 1925, Fawcett, here played by Charlie Hunnam, made a total of seven trips to this part of South America, accompanied, on five of them, by Corporal Henry Costin, played by Robert Pattinson. Frustrated in class, rank and status, having been “transferred a fair bit around the empire,” and steeped for the great majority of his career in surveying, mapping and cartography, Fawcett was at first merely motivated by the opportunity to reclaim his family name by charting the farthest fringes of the globe, but quickly found himself more and more entranced and fascinated by the Amazon and its peoples, as well as less and less interested or invested in his wife Nina (Siena Miller), his family, and his life back in England and Europe.
For the first part of The Lost City of Z, that plays a bit like an adventure film, suffused with the romance of an unmapped world and cast in the heightened textures of a graphic novel. With a reading of Rudyard Kipling’s “The Explorer” preceding Fawcett’s first journey, this initially looks and films like a film that takes place against a more antiquated map of the world – a world in which the whole middle sweep of South America is painted with the broad brushstroke of “Amazonia” – as the romance of scientific exploration and expedition percolates through every scene. Even the colour palette resembles a mildewy old map, and gives the impression that the film has been projected across the yellowy canvas that maps were once printed upon. Once Fawcett and Costin arrive on the Amazon, however, those adventurous overtones give way to a more meditative yet oddly discontinuous atmosphere, established first by the wandering aimlessness of the scenes that actually take place on the river, only for their meandering half-momentum to continue onto land, as the journey is increasingly carried forward and determined by forces beyond any of the participants’ actions or individual agencies. One of the most disorienting and unusual consequences of this pacing is that Fawcett and Costin arrive much sooner at the destination of this first trip – the source of the Amazon – than might be expected, with the action then shifting abruptly back to England, before returning to South America twice more over the course of the film.
For that reason, it often feels as if Gray wants to capture, and remain poised at, the Western experience of the Amazon before the West had a cohesive aesthetic vocabulary for it, let alone a standard narrative to tell about it. Because the events of the film take place so late in the colonial enterprise, however, this means that Fawcett has to consciously revert to an earlier period and mindset of colonialism in order to forestall and evades its aesthetic and narrative legacy, producing an odd combination of regressive and visionary registers that carries over to the film as a whole, and precludes any stable distinction between past and present, or between England and Amazonia. As a result, the scenes actually set in England become more disorienting as the film proceeds, starting with the depiction of the Royal Geographical Society, which initially seems like the epicentre of Fawcett’s exploratory impulse, only for it to become clear that it is utterly disinterested in the antiquity of the indigenous civilisations that Fawcett reports upon his return, or in his more majestic and even utopian conception of the Amazon and its peoples. In one of the most spectacular scenes of the film, the meeting convened by the Society for the purposes of Fawcett’s talk descends into a chaotic and abject maelstrom, requiring him to tell them to “settle down, children” before eventually quitting their ranks entirely after returning from his second trip.
With that colonial optic gradually dismantled as it proceeds, Gray becomes less and less inclined to distill Fawcett’s apprehension of South America – or England, whenever he returns – into anything resembling a single vista or breathless threshold, instead displacing the sublime spectacle of first contact to suggest a gradual and emergent interpenetration of cultures. In the process, the space between Europe and Amazonia swells and distends, as Gray opts for shots – often close-ups, or tightly-framed tableaux – that defy any sense of whether we are still leaving England, or just arriving in Amazonia once again. In that transient zone, the cohesion of European culture is dissolved in the face of the jungle, rather than affirmed by it, while the notion of “home” becomes murkier as the film proceeds as well, as the Amazon starts to subtly become the anchor of the film – the point that Fawcett is continually departing from and returning to, rather than vice versa. While The Lost City of Z may only depict three of Fawcett’s journeys, then, the blurring of boundaries between his different lives is embedded in this broader discontinuity with which we move from scene to scene, and from tableau to tableau, as the self-containment and even classicism of Gray’s classicist cinematic “look” creates an overwhelming sense of dissonance and estrangement.
So distended and discontinuously do we move from scene to scene, and from space to space, that by the later parts of the film the landscape and ambience of Amazonia has worked its way in the corners of even the most canonical moments in early twentieth century history, dissolving any Eurocentric perspective but not replacing it with an alternative, omniscient perspective either. Beyond a certain point, Fawcett is away from home so much that his role in England becomes purely symbolic – a placeholder for English values – even as his personal relation to England becomes more dissonant with each trip, in a vision of modernist masculinity as an absence, a void and fantasy that could never be filled. Certainly, when he’s there, Fawcett rehearses one trope of male gallantry, chivalry and heroism after another, but these feel increasingly formalist and devoid of meaning, just as Europe itself feels increasingly hollowed-out and displaced from the centre of its own narrative, reduced to a series of motifs that are rotated and promulgated with no stable ground to orient or contextualise them. Strangely, that means it doesn’t matter all that much if Hunnam and Pattinson don’t bring an enormous amount to the film in the way of charisma, since when they’re in Amazonia it works to subsume them into the landscape, and when they’re in England it works to suggest a symbolic masculine authority that can never live up to the fantasies erected and narrativised around it in its – necessary – absence.
While The Lost City of Z may start off by feeling very reminiscent of Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo, then, it concludes by querying the very vision of auteurist masculinity around which those two films revolve. Certainly, Fawcett is a visionary in the vein of both Aguirre and Fitzcarraldo, but by juxtaposing his visions in South America with his life in Europe in such an ongoing way, Gray complicates them as well. For one thing, it’s clear that his visions come at the expense of his wife, who starts the film as an independent woman, and seems embraced by Fawcett for precisely that reason, only to be subsumed into a more conventional domestic role that feels every bit as formalist as his own chivalry, after he informs her, before his second trip, that “men and women have performed their roles since the beginning of time and it is the cornerstone of our civilization.” At moments, you could almost make an irreverent case that Fawcett’s visions are driven by his wife’s independence, much as noir would be driven, thirty years later, by the prospect of women in the workforce. It’s not just Fawcett;s wife, however, but his children who suffer, with his son telling him bluntly upon his return that “you think only of Indians, or Germans, or any path to glory that you can find,” before realising that he can only build a relationship with his father by accompanying him on his ongoing search for Z.
Yet if Fawcett’s quest were just presented as an impediment to his wife and children The Lost City of Z would be more straightforwardly revisionist than it actually is. What makes Fawcett’s visions so moving, at least within the film’s emotional palette, is that they actually denude him as well, stripping him of all but the most notional and symbolic connections to everyone and everything that he once held precious, and forcing him to adopt values and attitudes that seem utterly inimical to who he once was in order to sustain his fantasies of what Z might entail. What makes this process so unusual, too, is that it always seems to be operating, at some level, as a way of recuperating a manhood unsatisfied by England, even if Fawcett quickly becomes disinterested in the more specific demands of class, rank and status. Displaced from his family and from Europe, but also more symbolically present within both than ever before, it finally feels as if Z offers the horizon at which he will recognise whether he can reconcile himself with the role allocated by Western society, or otherwise transcend it. Certainly, there’s a whiff of colonialist mystification here, but to Gray’s credit, this is never presented as anything other than a trajectory of increasingly hermetic and solipsistic self-annihilation, culminating with the film’s cryptic account of Fawcett’s final days, which here consists of a tribe of Indians “liberating his spirits” for him.
Whether this involves sacrifice or absorption into their tribe – or both – is unclear and the film ends elliptically, with the Indians taking Fawcett up a series of torch-clad pathways towards a golden horizon that feels coterminous with Z itself. This image also opens the film, which is perhaps why it also feels as if Gray has discovered, in Z, an apt image for his own visionary brand of auteurism too. Throughout the film, it’s not hard to see that Gray is thinking through a connection between his own vision and Fawcett’s vision, but these final scenes also beg the question of whether his own vision, and the hermetic aesthetic of his films, is as solipsistic, self-regarding and, eventually, self-annihilating as those of Fawcett’s final sights. For a director whose films have so often been content to dwell in a cinematic universe of their own creation with little reference to outside trends, or even to an audience, this reflection is the real revisionist gesture of The Lost City of Z, a film in which Gray takes stock of his career in quite a remarkable, bracing and, finally, poignant manner.