It seems fair to say that writer/director James Gray has almost had something of a one-track film career. Starting in 1994, he made three crime dramas before switching things up a little bit in 2008 to make a pair of romantic dramas. This isn’t really a bad thing though, as his films have been decently received, with the last four earning nominations for the prestigious Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. However, with his latest film, Gray has decided to leave his comfort zone completely by giving us an ambitious adaptation of David Grann’s novel “The Lost City of Z,” leaving behind the realms of crime and romance and exchanging them for a grand adventure deep in the Amazonian wilderness. The question becomes: Will Gray be able to continue his streak of successes, or will the challenges of a completely different genre leave him stranded in the vast jungle?
Beginning in 1905, the film follows Major Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam), an officer in the British Army who is looking for advancement, but is finding it difficult in part thanks to his tarnished family name. Eventually, Fawcett is sent to the Royal Geographical Society in London where he is ordered to complete a survey mission in Bolivia, which will hopefully prevent war between that country and Brazil. During his expedition, he is told stories of a gold city deep in the jungle, and later discovers possible evidence of its existence. Upon returning home, he is praised for his accomplishments, but is ridiculed when it comes to his theories of the “Lost City of Z,” as he calls it. A second expedition is mounted with the help of renowned biologist James Murray (Angus Mcfadyen), who insists on joining him. It’s not long before Fawcett, along with his trusted friend Henry Costin (Robert Pattison), once again finds himself back in the jungle, relentlessly chasing down what could very well be nothing more than a fairy tale.
“The Lost City of Z” is indeed an incredibly ambitious piece that attempts to encapsulate the extraordinary life of a man chasing a dream, while also trying to balance his responsibility to his wife and children back at home. There is a lot to tell in the 20 years that the film tries to cover, and yet, one can’t help but feel that the film doesn’t do nearly enough to convey the extraordinary adventure that this man and his colleagues went through. There is little doubt that this is an absolutely gorgeous film, featuring lush period settings and costumes, incredible exteriors, and stunning cinematography, but when you take into account the multiple issues that crop up throughout these incredible visuals (glacial pacing, repetitive structuring, an over-extended runtime, etc.), it begins to feel like Gray is trying to cover up the fact that his screenplay isn’t quite up to snuff.
I suppose you could say that the pacing and runtime go hand in hand, for with the film running 141 minutes and the story not being able to fill such a lengthy runtime, problems with the pacing were certainly inevitable. It doesn’t really help either that, as the film goes on, you start to notice that there are a number of scenes that could have been trimmed down or eliminated entirely to help make it tighter. A primary example of this comes during the first expedition where we spend what feels like an eternity with the crew aboard a raft as they float down the Amazon (scenes that come far too close to emulating Werner Herzog’s dreadful “Aguirre: The Wrath of God,” which also involved a search for a lost city). Granted, this is only about ten minutes of the film, but the pacing issue makes it seem like much longer. This is not to mention a number of additional tedious scenes on Fawcett’s travels that could have used some work as well.
There’s also the major problem of the film’s repetitive structuring, which places it in a rather dreary loop. To boil the film down, we have Fawcett going on his expedition, coming home, going on another expedition, coming home, going off to fight in World War I, coming home, and finally going off on another expedition with his son. In between is the only time it’s able to deal with the issue of Fawcett’s family, and when it does, it does it in a most superficial manner. If the film had to be stretched out to nearly two and a half hours, this probably would have been a better area of concentration for all of those extra minutes of screentime, as opposed to the unnecessary portions of Fawcett’s travels. All of this may indeed have been exactly as it happened, but surely there was a better way to arrange it so that the audience doesn’t feel like Fawcett is merely being bounced back and forth between home and his latest mission, while only barely getting a word in with his loved ones.
As mentioned, there was a lot that happened in these 20 years, but it would appear that Gray just had a little too much trouble trying to narrow it down and put it into one movie, leaving us with a bland travelogue that ends up having very little to say about its grand adventurer. It’s a shame because there are a number of things to like about it. Besides the beautiful visuals, you get a passionate performance from Charlie Hunnam, who pours his heart into portraying this incredible individual, and excellent performances from the supporting cast, including Sienna Miller as his wife Nina and Tom Holland as his oldest son Jack. Adapting such an epic story would have been a difficult task for any screenwriter, but even more so for one who had never ventured into the genre before. It was a big, bold, and ambitious attempt, but ultimately Gray’s reach simply exceeded his grasp.
“The Lost City of Z” comes to Blu-ray in a 2.39:1, 1080p High Definition transfer of mostly decent quality. There is a very slight, but noticeable, haze over the picture that appears to be consistent throughout the presentation, but it doesn’t really get in the way of seeing what’s happening. It is a bit of a shame though, given that the film has such extraordinary visuals. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio, on the other hand, is excellent, giving you all of the dialogue, sound effects, and score in fantastic quality. Overall, a little more work needed to be done on the transfer, but for the most part, this release gets the job done.
Feature Film Commentary by Director James Gray: A fascinating track that has the writer/director taking you through the making of the film.
Adventure in the Jungle (2 Minutes): An extremely brief featurette that features short clips of interviews with the cast and crew.
From Novel to Screen (3 Minutes): Another very brief featurette with short clips of interviews, focusing mainly on Percy Fawcett.
Expedition Journal: A digital scrapbook of production stills and behind the scenes photos.
James Gray’s “The Lost City of Z” is an ambitious venture that features stunning visuals and an excellent lead performance from Charlie Hunnam, but the film is ultimately let down by its glacial pacing, over-extended runtime, and repetitive structure, turning it into a tedious and forgettable adventure. Whether it was due to this being far too much to bring to the screen, or the possibility that James Gray just wasn’t up to the challenge, “The Lost City of Z” is never able to find its bearings, leaving behind something that could rightfully be called a beautiful mess.