Obsession has long been synonymous with filmmaking and the fundamentals of drama, from Shakespeare and beyond, and is often the tragic undoing of its characters. Directors, in particular, can recurrently lose the plot with tunnel vision and wait several years to bring their passion project to the screen — it is often dutiful dedication and obsession that sees the final product through to completion. And so these qualities are deeply consequential to James Gray’s “Lost City Of Z,” a narrative about an obsession several painstaking years in the making.
Elegant, slow moving and formally classicist, Gray’s latest is, on the surface, a major gear shift for the helmer. It’s as if Martin Scorsese’s “The Age Of Innocence,” Werner Herzog’s “Aguirre, the Wrath of God,” and “Embrace Of The Serpent” — very new modes for Gray — were ground together to create a previously unseen blend. But upon closer inspection of its more refined tenor, the picture appears as a continuation of the quieter mood found in his previous melodrama, “The Immigrant,” and his winning collaboration with that film’s same cinematographer, Darius Khonji. And yet, the picture has scale and scope.
Gray’s accused himself, self-deprecatingly, as making the same picture over and over again. While ‘Z’’s veneer looks fairly different, similar themes are tacitly fermented in its DNA. The writer/director usually uses genre as a Trojan horse to explore matters of familial tragedy — crime utilized for a loose adaptation of Henry IV for “We Own The Night,” for example. And in a way, the filmmaker maintains this idea, though more loosely, employing the adventurer format to examine the price from which family suffers when pride and ego take precedence. However, obsession is the crucial ingredient unique to Gray’s filmmaking and much like his latest film’s protagonist, consumes the picture.
Set in the early dawn of the 20th Century, ‘Z’ centers around Major Percival Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam), an exceptional soldier passed over from his overdue honors thanks to the disgrace his wayward father bestowed on the family name. Looking for redemption and yearning for more, the Major accepts a dangerous surveying mission in the Amazon, leaving his wife (Sienna Miller) and children at home for several years to explore this uncharted territory. While he comes home a hero, his lauded exploits are still not enough to penetrate the inner sanctum of the dignified British aristocracy he so pines to be part of.
But fueled by the enticing taste of what he has found — artifacts and evidence of a civilization beyond what the elite disregard as the life of crude savages — Fawcett soon feels the call of the wild again and is compelled to find what legend calls “the lost city of Z” (zed, the English pronunciation). In tow on his explorations are Henry Costin (Robert Pattinson) and Arthur Manley (Edward Ashley) and eventually, his teenage son, Jack, played by Tom Holland (Spaghetti Western legend Franco Nero has a cameo, too).
Carefully crafted, while ‘Z’ has its adventure form, hearts of darkness and slow-journey-into-the-abyss qualities, the picture is also marked by its very English, stately and regal tenors not unlike the genteel productions of Merchant Ivory. Influence is everywhere but never overwhelms: the splendorous grandeur of Kubrick’s “Barry Lyndon,” the striking photography of Vittorio Storraro, the torch-lit nights of “Apocalypse Now,” and one direct homage to Herzog’s “Fitzcarraldo,” another picture beset by the madness of obsession (though it’s not the Where’s Waldo of cinema either).
What characterizes ‘Z’ perhaps more than any other element is Gray’s own compulsion and rigorous commitment to form. His dedicated, composed vision makes no apologies for its unhurried pace, its meditative tone and its relative lack of action (though its scope does provide a low-key spectacle). Its shape is triangular and confident, never rubbery, though its form renders it emotionally distant at times. ’Z’ is perhaps not as visually dynamic as it could be and its infatuation makes for one long sustained grace note, but there are a few flourishes in the sweeping WWI battles that recall the assuredness of Kubrick’s “Paths Of Glory.”
Appearance may be the movie’s strongest asset. Beautifully rendered on 35mm celluloid, cinematographer Darius Khonji may be the movie’s MVP. He carefully drapes part of the film in gorgeous chiaroscuro shadows and other acts decorated with an amber hue glistening against the verdant jungle floors. Likewise, the production design and the music are exquisite, the former lending the movie its courtly qualities, the latter imbuing the picture with a sense of scale and the operatic qualities Gray loves so much. Wes Anderson’s key music supervisor Randall Poster and George Drakoulias — new collaborators to the Gray creative sphere — are clutch, helping the director zero in on resplendent opera and classical music.
While none of the actors are in the weight class of Joaquin Phoenix or Marion Cotillard, all of them excel with the oft-wooden Charlie Hunnam delivering the most nuanced performance of his carer. Pattinson continues his streak of duteous supporting roles in auteurist pictures. While the always-underrated Sienna Miller gets one scene that attempts to subvert the commonplace thankless wife role, appearing strong and willful, the part is still rather underwhelming and unfortunately underwritten (the film has a male POV to be sure).
Arguably separated into five acts — three jungle expeditions, an opening “Howard’s End”-like regal set up and a detour into WWI — at two hours and twenty minutes with an unhurried pace, ‘Z’ is long and may test the patience of the modern viewer. This is classical, unrushed filmmaking for the arthouse crowd; cinephiles with a capital C.
Class has always been one of Gray’s concerns (the patriarch of “The Yards” desperate to exceed his status and grasp, being one example) and that aspect plays a big part here. Fawcett’s motivation for these jungle missions is rooted in his need to eclipse his status, but the adventurer soon realizes the rank of one’s character doesn’t necessarily mean their mettle is worthy.
Still, the path to glory is the explorer’s fanatical passion, and Gray’s own precision and preoccupation is absorbing. “The Lost City Of Z” won’t be for all viewers, but its delicate devotion to itself is something sure to inspire admiration and obsessives. [B]