The Lost City of Z is the kind of film they used to make

Had The Lost City of Z been filmed in a brightly lit black-and-white, perhaps projected from a rediscovered reel of celluloid in some revival theater, no one might blink an eye. Was it not for the modern faces of its lead actors, one could tell me this was some lost adventure film made by some great director whose name is remembered by the programmers of TCM.

In case I’m not driving home my point bluntly enough, director James Gray has made something fiercely gorgeous and relevant that feels totally crystallized in amber, a relic lit with fire. The Lost City of Z is an aesthetic triumph with a surprising current of wonder and adventure running through it.

Based on a true story, The Lost City of Z chronicles the journey of Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam), a British soldier tasked by the Royal Geographic Service to chart a border between Bolivia and Brazil, exploring unknown territory and leaving behind his wife Nina (Sienna Miller) and ever-growing family.

During that journey, along with his partner Henry Costin (Robert Pattinson), Fawcett discovers the possibility of a lost city trapped deep within the jungles of Amazonia, a city he dubs Z (pronounced “Zed”) that may predate European civilization. This pursuit consumes his life.

That makes The Lost City of Z sound like a movie about obsession, about destroying your life in the pursuit of a goal, of tearing your life apart. But I don’t think that’s necessarily what it is at all.

The Lost City of Z is rather a story of the pursuits we must make to make our name, to be forced to leave family behind and achieve greatness in the hopes that we will make a better lives for ourselves. The Lost City of Z is about what society needs us to leave behind in the hopes of climbing the ladder. It’s not the obsession, it’s the demands we all make, it’s the obligations that Percy Fawcett feels that he keeps articulating as providing a life past the reputation his father left.

At least, that’s what I got, but any good movie is about at least 3 things. James Gray has crafted a film that, while likely more removed from Gray himself than ever, feels intensely personal to Gray, his own pursuits and his meditations and his feelings. It’s a filmmaker working through his thinking on the screen. There’s not just his own personal pursuits of pride, but his thoughts on the inherently colonialist nature of the material.

Fawcett certainly has his better intentions with discovering this society, but the film is not willing to let him off the hook for his indifference to plight or his using of the societies he discovers. It’s also willing to draw that to his treatment of his wife (a fantastic Sienna Miller performance) and how she is just as much a part of what Fawcett sees as resources to pull himself ahead. There’s a feeling of looking inward.

That’s also what makes Charlie Hunnam work so well. An oft maligned actor, Hunnam shows how good he can be, leaning into the old-school sense of derring-do he’s been able to consistently convey combined with a more recent sense of sensitive melancholy. It’s a fantastic lead performance and the exact sort this movie needs.

Robert Pattinson and Tom Holland must also be singled out for praise here, his partner and his son who both join him on his journeys. Pattinson gives a reserved and meticulous performance, everything just so, the control to Fawcett’s adventure. Holland shows the shades of his cinematic father so well, shaped by having to live under someone who was never there.

But thematics and performance alone are not what makes The Lost City of Z so fantastic, it is that earlier mentioned aesthetic triumph. Few filmmakers are simply as classically strong as James Gray, and few make it look so easy.

When Gray is in the jungle, his approach feels like the truest of adventure filmmaking. His Amazonia feels near mythic, a place of reverence that is constantly being unfolded. We are as in awe of discovery as our characters are, it’s stripping away the fantasy to show a world where there was still new charts to be made, that there’s something fundamentally human about that discovery.

That feeling is thanks not only to Gray’s steady directorial hand and vision, which also produces an amazing final 20 minutes unlike anything I’ve seen from him before and a gasp-worthy final shot, but thanks to cinematographer Darius Khondji’s amazing work. No film has ever more clearly needed to be shot on film, the grain giving a tangibility to this world, allowing for the gentle painting of light uncovering this world. The warmth of the sun-lit world, the inky shadows broken up by fire, all of this is captured immaculately with Khondji’s camera.

The Lost City of Z is a beautiful work, a classically made film that stands as an ode to a style and a world long gone by. James Gray is a master, let that much be clear.

Grade: A