Director/writer James Gray could have taken a more commercial approach to his adaptation of David Grann’s “The Lost City of Z” and filled it with huge bloody battles, terror in the jungle and a war story more intent on embracing big action than big emotions. The fact he stays true to his style of making movies that dig deep into what makes people tick is what gives “Z” a strong emotional core. It’s a production that will make you think while you’re being entertained.
The topics open for serious thought revolve around the nature of man. What is it that will make a loving husband and father leave his family for years at a time just to explore an uncharted world? What are the motivations that make such decisions easy?
These questions come up in the tale of British explorer Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam) who travels into the Amazon region of South America early in the 20th century. His routine trip to map the region leads to the discovery of what he believes is evidence of an advanced society that inhabited the area centuries before.
His discovery is discredited when he returns to England and that prompts him to make a return voyage.
Gray mixes scenes that show the dangers of such missions with plenty of moments that reveal the man behind the explorer. Many of these come in casual conversations between Fawcett and his aide-de-camp played with quiet power by Robert Pattinson. It is also made clear through the discussions of class that made Fawcett and outsider despite his exploits.
The most powerful scenes are the quiet moments shared by Fawcett and his wife, Nina (Sienna Miller). Gray never pushes the conversations between the husband and wife and that gives those moments a sense of being rooted in reality. The strong performances by Hunnam and Miller give the film a warmth and beauty that contrast with the uncertainties and struggles faced during the explorations.
This is by far the best performance of Hunnam’s career. Instead of hiding behind the high-tech action of “Pacific Rim” or the grittiness of “Sons of Anarchy,” the British actor must embody this character fully. And his transformation is so seamless that it’s hard to tell where the actor ends and the character begins.
Miller turns in her usual commanding performance. She’s one of the few actresses who can take limited screen time and make it feel like she’s the focus of the production. She breathes life into a character that resonates with truth and beauty.
Gray can get away with his more reserved filming style because of the strong cast. They can hold the attention of an audience so deeply that the story can move at a much slower pace than the quick-edit movies that have become the norm.
His style allows the viewer to be pulled into the story so much that he or she becomes invested in both the exploration and the fate of the loving couple. “The Lost City of Z” shows that a compelling story delivered in a first-rate manner doesn’t need big gimmicks.
Be brave and explore this film as it is proof that smart filmmaking does still exist.