2016 NEW YORK FILM FESTIVAL CLOSING NIGHT SELECTION: After years of development hell, filmmaker James Gray can let loose a triumphant howl of success. His passion project “The Lost City of Z,” playing as the Closing Night Selection at the New York Film Festival, is easily his best looking movie to date. It’s one of his better films overall, too. A visual treat, this is a throwback to a different generation of cinema. Gray is reaching back to the past, not just for his story, but for the feel of this picture. Some might find it a bit plodding, but that’s somewhat intentional. Gray and “The Lost City of Z” march you into the unknown of the jungle, but at their own distinct pace.
“The Lost City of Z” is not only Gray’s best looking endeavor, it’s perhaps his best directed as well. The script is a shade below where he usually is, so that holds things back a bit, along with a second act hump. But the visual beauty of the work mostly masks those flaws. More in line with the look and feel of “The Immigrant” as opposed to “Two Lovers,” Gray is still trying something new. As close to epic as he’s willing to get, this is about as classy as cinema gets. As the final title of NYFF this year, it’s a fine way to close the fest out.
Based on the book by David Grann, this is the dramatized but true story of British explorer Col. Percival Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam), a man determined to make his mark on the world. He’s been passed over for promotion time and time again because of his modest heritage, leading to alternative means for his glory. Fawcett decides to accept an exploratory mission to the Amazon, leaving behind his wife Nina (Sienna Miller) and children. It’s a multi-year job, one that does end in success, leading to praise but also the beginnings of an obsession.
Fawcett is now determined to seek out a lost city known as Z, believing it will finally prove his worth. He sets out with the likes of Henry Costin (Robert Pattinson), James Murray (Angus Macfadyen), and eventually his son Jack (Tom Holland). This search is less fruitful, but Fawcett won’t give up the ghost. Believing that his prior friendly interactions with indigenous cultures will protect him, he ignores warning signs. This leads to a final journey that Fawcett won’t return from, though I won’t spoil here how that goes down. Through it all, there’s strong acting, an unimpeachable visual palate, and a classical sense of how a movie should be made.
Hunnam is fantastic here, giving life to a character that’s not easy to bring to the screen. The growing obsession is wonderfully captured. Hunnam is also able to effectively show the familial love that he values as much as the search for Z. This leads to nice chemistry with Miller, who gets to be more than a worried wife. Holland and Pattinson are very good, though very much supporting players. The same goes for Angus Macfadyen. Also on hand are Edward Ashley, Johann Myers and more. The showstopper is Hunnam though, doing work you might not have thought he was previously capable of.
Gray, once again utilizing the cinematography of Darius Khondji, crafts a beautiful visual film. The visual language of the flick will take your breath away. His direction is as assured as ever, even taking some risks by opening things up with a battle sequence set during World War I. There are also wonderful surprise moments, when a spear will come out of nowhere, etc. It’s top notch directing. Tons of credit goes to Khondji too, who outdoes himself. They have quite a collaboration going between them. If there’s any justice, Khondji will be in play for a Best Cinematography nomination during the 2017 Oscar season.
As for his writing, it’s a bit stiffer than usual for Gray, though that could partly be due to the source material. There are times where the dialogue just feels out of a slightly less thoughtful movie and things drag. This is especially true in the middle section. Regardless, he’s able to draw out strong acting from his cast, which has always been a hallmark of his. “The Lost City of Z” effectively drops you into the jungle, and it’s a breathtaking one at that. By mixing in shades of classic cinema, he gives this a timeless feel. It’s a period piece, yes, but the themes of family, glory and obsession are plenty modern.
All in all, “The Lost City of Z” is a visual masterpiece only held back by a second act hump and a slightly prolonged running time. If you’re a fan of what Gray has done before, this should be music to your ears. He finally made his passion project, it turned out very well, and it was a lovely way to end NYFF for 2016. It won’t be out for about six months, having been bumped to 2017, but it’s worth the wait. This is an old fashioned movie in all the best ways. Cinephiles will feast on this offering. “The Lost City of Z” is luscious to look at and a full cinematic meal.