This movie exceeded my expectations by a wide margin and the more I think about it the more excited I become of what the film's director could produce in the future.
I read the source material for the movie -- an eponymous non-fiction account of Percy Fawcett's early 20th century explorations of Amazonia and the lost civilization he was certain lay hidden within its depths -- a few years ago. The book stuck with me for three reasons. Firstly, the descriptions of the "Green Hell" of the Amazon rainforest, where every creature from microbe on up to man actively sought the explorer's destruction, are vivid and terrifying. David Grann, the author of the Lost City of Z, was very successful in convincing me I don't want to go into a rainforest. Grann was also, to move to my second point, adept in pointing out the many paradoxes and complexities of Fawcett's search for his city. Described as one of the last great explorers, Fawcett's efforts drew significant attention but also controversy. The book detailed how Fawcett sacrificed great swaths of his life to this quest and the terrible burden he placed upon his family and acquaintances. The third thing I remembered from the book was the ambiguous reward for all of that sacrifice. Fawcett's fate is disturbingly vague, as though he not just bodily disappeared into the jungles of South America but the jungle was somehow able to swallow up his name, identity, and history. But it is possible that he was on to something. The book spent time detailing a real lost civilization of Amazonia that may have existed in the area Fawcett surveyed, existing beneath the very ground upon which he trod.
So, I'm hoping you get a sense of a story, as described by Grann's book, that has a lot going for it but also has simply got a lot going on. The source material is wide-ranging, complex, and ultimately ambiguous. I did not read this book and immediately think it would make a good movie. And yet, the director of this movie, James Gray, was so seized by Fawcett's explorations that he spent years in development hell to bring this vision to the screen.
A lot of the reviews I've read mention how The Lost City of Z feels like the kind of movie which doesn't made so often anymore. The story is epic and spans decades, while remaining tightly focused on the life and times of a single man. One might be reminded of Lawrence of Arabia which covers a similar time period and themes. Gray employs a stellar cast to the task of bringing the story to life; Fawcett is played by Charlie Hunnam, and major roles go to actors as well-known as Tom Holland, Robert Pattinson, Sienna Miller, and Ian McDiarmid. This is a movie convinced that if you throw enough talent and heart at a complex, unfilmable story it will eventually relax into something coherent and lovely.
It helps that this film is indeed beautiful. There is no scene that doesn't contain some unlikely, unexpected bit of genius. From the way a horse and buggy are filmed to almost glow in ultraviolet hues with the early morning of a departure, to the motif of objects of desire fleeing and disappearing in the wash of time, to the dreamlike devastation of Somme during World War One, this is a movie unafraid to look beyond the events of a story to find what each moment might contain just beyond the next bend in the river.
James Gray has made a few movies, none of which I've watched, sadly. I intend to correct that oversight as soon as possible. His next movie, though, is a hard sci fi movie starring Brad Pitt called "Ad Astra," which Gray described as a "Heart of Darkness" at the outer reaches of the solar system. It occurs to me that I've never wanted anyone to try bringing that concept to life as much as I've wanted James Gray to.