The Amazon and obsessed men go together like cannibalism and acid reflux

Film | by Jorge Ignacio Castillo

The Lost City of Z
Roxy Theatre
4 out of 5

The law of the jungle has nothing on indie filmmakers trying to make a name for themselves. It’s probably why so many have succeeded.

Director James Gray may not be at the forefront of filmgoers’ consciousness, but he is one of the most reliable American filmmakers at work today. Gray is responsible for the outstanding The Immigrant, Two Lovers and We Own the Night, neither of which set the box office on fire, but got rave reviews. The filmmaker’s minimalism and fierce humanity seem more suited to French cinema than the Hollywood system.

Unsurprisingly, he is far better liked across the Atlantic.

It’s not surprising France financed Gray’s biggest movie to date, a based-on-real-events jungle epic of a sort not seen since Werner Herzog’s heyday: The Lost City of Z.

Never mind the scale, the film is as soul-crushing as the rest of the director’s oeuvre, yet strangely inspiring, too.

The Lost City of Z takes place at the turn of the century, as Europe approaches WWI. It follows the travails of Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam, Pacific Rim), a British officer who, despite demonstrating bravery and intelligence through his military career, is haunted by his father — a drunk who dragged the family name through the mud.

An opportunity emerges for Percy to recuperate his social standing: head an expedition through the Amazon and map the treacherous border between Bolivia and Brazil. The trip is all kinds of hazardous. Hunger, disease and ambushes are a daily occurrence, but it pays off when Fawcett discovers clues that point to a lost civilization.

Fawcett would return to the area on two more occasions. Better prepared each time, the explorer gets so close, he could sense it. But obsessions come with a considerable price tag — in this case, a family that barely knows him.

Unlike in Herzog’s movies, the Amazon is not the villain in The Lost City of Z. In fact, it’s the only place where Percy Fawcett feels like himself. Britain’s rigid social divides are this adventurer’s main antagonist. Even after joining the Royal Geographical Society, Fawcett must tolerate old money taking precedence over achievement.

An actor who has long struggled to overcome the pretty boy stigma (sorry, Sons of Anarchy fan base), Charlie Hunnam has never been better. The polar opposite of Klaus Kinski in Aguirre, the Wrath of God, Hunnam underplays the role, which suits the character (who would want to finance a madman’s fixation anyway?) There is a nod to Fitzcarraldo — opera in the middle of the rainforest — which also contrasts Percy’s pursuit with Herzog’s characters’ follies.

The movie is nearly stolen from Hunnam by — of all people — Robert Pattinson. Percy Fawcett’s loyal right hand is not a developed character, but R-Patz inhabits it as a lived-in, multidimensional individual. Much like fellow Twilight-er Kristen Stewart, Pattinson’s decision to favour indie filmmaking over blockbusters kind keeps paying off.

Like every James Gray picture, the film is lusciously shot. Cinematographer Darius Khondji (Seven) stops just short of allowing the period elements and wilderness taking over. Unlike his contemporaries, Gray likes straightforward narratives and simple ideas. His strength is in storytelling and is captivating here.

Even though Fawcett’s relationship with his family is a major dramatic drive, The Lost City of Z acknowledges that Percy’s idea of personal realization lies in roughing it up in the Amazon and doesn’t judge him for it (neither does his wife, for that matter). Z is not a destination. It’s a state of mind. ❧