The Lost City of Z

The Lost City of Z ★★★★½

Probably the surprise film of the year for me. Until this, James Gray has always been a directer that I found made good but not great films; something was always missing. I liked both The Yards and We Own The Night but thought they were just pretty Scorsese imitations, The Immigrant looked nice but didn’t have any emotional pull with me, and I expected to adore Two Lovers but ended up thinking it was merely pretty good. Gray had always made watchable films with excellent parts but they had never coalesced into a full masterpiece.

So then this comes along, and maybe I just didn’t pay attention to the marketing much, but I’ve been assuming this was some sort of Indiana Jones-style, swashbuckling adventure film, and it became one of those “I’ll catch it when it arrives on a streaming service” movies. That day finally arrived and guess what, this film is not at all the film I expected it to be, and is actually really amazing. It’s typical that arguably the Gray film I’ve been least excited about turns out to be my favourite of his.

Before I talk about the rest, I want to first say something about how incredible this film looks. Like, holy shit this is one of the most aesthetically gorgeous films I’ve ever seen. It’s easy (well, not easy) to make a film look aesthetically pleasing, but it’s the sheer authenticity of The Lost City Of Z’s images that make it stand out. It’s the towering, elemental presence of forests, the stark immediacy of gushing rivers and the deep, environmental hues that make this film breathtakingly beautiful. It takes advantage of some incredible locations sure, but even the interior shots filmed in Northern Ireland have a warm, rustic feel to them. Unsurprisingly this is shot by my love, Darius Khondji, who also shot Se7en!, Midnight In Paris and Gray’s The Immigrant to name a few, and maybe I’m just hanging out in the wrong circles but he doesn’t seem to get anywhere near the amount of love he should. All the movies he has shot look incredible, and he’s a very versatile DoP; few of his films look the same.

Like one of the central themes of obsession, the film sort of sneaks up on you. For the first third I was on board, but only just, but like life-ruining desire it draws you in until you’re enveloped within the world and you can’t get out, it’s too late. Soon the film has become a tender, emotional journey about discovery, dreams and the unbeatable menace of time. Percy’s quest to discover a deeper meaning to life, to rise above the loud, snooty rubble of yelling oafs in Great Britain, to “reach farther than his grasp” has its drawbacks, as time begins to speed by. His children age years in the blink of an eye and friends lives are ripped from them in a war just as quickly. The price of his dreams is later worn on his face in the increasingly deep lines on his forehead and around his eyes, but maybe that is the price of developing so much time to something that ultimately seems unfulfilled. On a macro level it becomes a film about trying to become more than ourselves, to break through of the invisible barriers we’ve been placed within and achieve something as close to a state of transcendence as possible.

And alongside that, I think it’s important to note that it’s a film about accepting and embracing cultural differences, equality, and ultimately the wonder of discovery. In Percy’s quest, his intent is never to colonise his potential lost city - and he later worries what kind of harm imitators of his jungle pursuits will cause to any potential secrets they find - but instead to just simply marvel at the unique brilliance of the world and the never-ending mysteries of it. Yes it becomes an obsession, but maybe there are worse things to be obsessed over.

Gray ended a 2015 interview regarding this film with the words “it's why you make movies”, and that idea popped into my head a few times while watching this, as it does have a pure magic to it, containing that inarticulate special something that flashes in front of my vision if someone asks me what makes cinema so special. So it’s pretty apt that this is a film about the backbreaking yearning to find or create or encounter something uniquely brilliant, and the film is exactly that, and it might turn out to be James Gray’s magnum opus.

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