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Tucked deep into the Bolivian jungle — through swarms of disease-carrying mosquitoes, a river flush with voracious piranha, and hidden gauntlets of hostile natives — the elusive civilization in The Lost City of Z sounds like El Dorado or The Fountain of Youth, one of those mythical paradises that conquistadors slaughtered many to seek. Based on David Grann's book, the film immediately calls to mind other tales of Western hubris in Amazonia, chiefly Werner Herzog's Aguirre, the Wrath of God, which had a deranged Klaus Kinski, in heavy armor, leading an expedition through the lush swelter of the Peruvian rainforest.
Yet the explorer in James Gray's sumptuous early 20th century adventure forges his own path and so does the film, which is poised between the fragrant terrors of Herzog and the rapture of Terrence Malick's The New World or The Thin Red Line. The epic tussle between society and savagery plays out as much within the soul of its hero as it does in the tension between British elites and indigenous populations whose culture is under threat. And as he and his fellow adventurers keep returning to Bolivia to chase this phantom in the heart of the jungle, a beautiful symbiosis develops between man and nature that envelops the film like a dream. He doesn't want to leave it — and neither do we.
Though opening a couple decades earlier and a continent away from his last film, The Immigrant, Gray and his extraordinary cinematographer, Darius Khondji (Se7en), bathe the exteriors and interiors in the same caressing light, evoking the period with a certain Old Hollywood grandeur. At the same time, the physical toll of exploration and combat is rendered in sweat, gangrenous limbs, and what Herzog himself, speaking of jungle sounds in the documentary Burden of Dreams, called "the harmony of overwhelming and collective murder." In following a man caught between worlds, Gray's approach isn't as contradictory as it sounds.
As a British army officer who's served with distinction in far-flung locales, Major Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam) should be more decorated than many of his peers, but as one officer dryly puts it, "He's been rather unfortunate in his choice of ancestors." Given the chance to achieve higher rank, Fawcett accepts the perilous assignment of mapping out the border between Bolivia and Brazil, two countries locked in a dispute over rubber resources. Leaving his wife (Sienna Miller) and young son behind, Fawcett sets out in 1906 on a planned two-year venture with his army buddy Henry Costin (Robert Pattinson) and a small band of soldiers and local guides.
The first trip upriver is a harrowing and mortally costly one for Fawcett and company, but at the farthest point, he stumbles onto an archeological find that convinces him of a great, lost civilization that's waiting to be discovered. His argument meets skepticism and mockery from some circles back home, but Fawcett changes his approach on a subsequent expedition and develops an appreciation for the achievements of the so-called "savages" en route. Then World War I breaks out and Fawcett is thrown headlong into what "superior" peoples are capable of doing to each other.
Since his 1994 debut feature Little Odessa, about an enclave of Soviet Jews in Brighton Beach, Gray has made the intermingling (and clashing) of cultures the dominant theme of his career, revisited in classically constructed dramas like The Yards, Two Lovers, and The Immigrant. In terms of scope, budget, and locale, The Lost City of Z may seems like a major departure, but it's essentially another immigrant story, detailing the ways in which the British import their arrogance and rigid class structure into worlds that have no place for them. Once Fawcett discards this line of thinking, nature transforms him, dignifying an obsession that puts a strain on his personal and professional life.
Fawcett imagines himself as a Rudyard Kipling character, but the realities of his family and the war keep intruding on his adventure and making him rethink his roles as father, husband, patriot, and, finally, man without a country. The Lost City of Z is neither Indiana Jones escapism nor a Malick-like reverie about nature, but something in between, a more grounded and troubled vision of human aspirations and imperfections. Gray may be working from an amalgam of literary, filmic, and historical influences, but in following Fawcett off the path, he stakes out his own distinctly bewitching territory.