I first met James Gray at the Venice Film Festival back in 1994. He was 25, and his debut feature, Little Odessa, was in competition; it wound up winning a Silver Lion. A kind of domestic gangster flick, set in the Russian-Jewish enclave of Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, it felt raw and vernacular in the way of other low-budget East Coast indies, but there were hints, beneath the surface bluster, of its maker’s deeper inclinations. The shots were longer than most American films of that period, and the mise en scène more classical. A little of its melancholy felt overripe, steeped in too much Russian liturgical music, but mostly the film seemed vital and lived in, an unsentimental valentine to a particular New York community.
Gray himself was something else. He wasn’t rude, exactly – more impatient, seething with ideas and anecdotes and opinions, many refreshingly impolitic. (There were, I soon discovered, an awful lot of his peers’ movies he didn’t like.) Above all, he seemed like a filmmaker on the up, preoccupied already by the films he wanted to make.
And why not? He was doing everything right. The small-scale indie debut, financed in part off credit cards, lent lustre by major stars (Tim Roth, Vanessa Redgrave) and burnished by festival acclaim. The studio development deal. He was taking every step required to succeed.
And then the script changed.
Almost a quarter-century later, James Gray has completed his sixth feature. Unlike his close contemporary Quentin Tarantino, he’s by no means a household name. Nor has he been especially prolific; after that early triumph in Venice, it took him another six years to complete his second feature, 2000’s grim, bleakly beautiful The Yards. But his half-dozen credits amount to a curious and singular body of work, unlike anything else in modern American cinema.
His largest and most ambitious production to date, The Lost City of Z (in limited release) is very good indeed, a remarkable return to form after the misstep of 2013’s The Immigrant. But it’s also magnificent, in a quixotic, damn-the-torpedoes kind of way. It arrives at a historical moment when Hollywood’s studios are committed to franchises, four-quadrant blockbusters and not much else. Fantasy is the thing, now – superheroes and Minions and whatever the fuck Vin Diesel is; history is irrelevant. And personal, grown-up filmmaking is rarer than a thoughtful tweet from the Oval Office.
So, in these straitened circumstances, what does James Gray do? He elects to write and direct an old-fashioned jungle-adventure epic, a genre that slipped out of fashion about the same time as the Lindy hop. Or rather, he takes all the elements of a jungle adventure – a journey into uncharted territory; a brave, doomed hero; encounters with bloodthirsty natives – and inculcates them with all the stuff that classic Hollywood movies either overlooked or ignored: notions of colonialism and patriarchy and globalisation. Which makes it sound, I know, about as thrilling as a cultural studies seminar. Instead, it’s a widescreen, old-fashioned epic, sensual and fine-grained and visually breathtaking – ever the traditionalist, Gray insisted on shooting on 35mm film – that also operates as a study of individual obsession … on both sides of the camera.
Adapted from David Grann’s 2009 bestseller, the film tells the real-life story of Lieutenant Colonel Percival (“Percy”) Harrison Fawcett, a British Royal Artillery officer in the first decade of the 20th century, who found both his military career and place in society impeded by the exploits of his late father – a drunk who’d squandered the family fortune and tarnished its good name. (As one bewhiskered chap puts it here, with an acidity worthy of Anthony Powell, “Fawcett has been rather unfortunate in his choice of ancestors.”)
For Percy, therefore, the past is something to overcome rather than to celebrate. His gaze is fixed squarely on the future – on his advancement through the ranks, and the rehabilitation of his reputation. So when he’s offered a commission to join a Royal Geographical Society expedition to South America, to chart a disputed border between Brazil and Bolivia, he seizes the chance, even though it means abandoning his wife and infant sons for more than two years.
In truth, he’s lured less by the possibility of military honours than by the simple promise of adventure. Conditions, he’s assured, will be arduous, the “savages” murderous. There will be disease and discomfort. For a soldier of the Crown, flush with imperial pride, it all sounds irresistible.
That Fawcett’s name was Percival is one of those stranger-than-fiction truths that occasionally intrude upon storytelling, since, precisely like that Arthurian knight, he finds himself drawn into nothing less than a grail quest – the protracted, life-altering pursuit of some transcendent but unattainable goal. While trekking through the jungle, he hears from one of his enslaved guides a story about an advanced civilisation existing somewhere deep in the Amazon, a utopia undisturbed by the outside world. The discovery, a few days later, of some fragments of pottery seems to confirm this account. Fawcett quickly (perhaps a little too quickly) declares his belief in the hidden city, and devotes much of the rest of his life to finding it, returning again and again to the jungle without success.
As played by Charlie Hunnam, he’s a complex, contradictory character – rationalist and mystic, sceptic and believer. One moment, a free-thinking progressive; the next, a hidebound product of Empire. I’ve never rated the actor much, but he’s little short of revelatory here, as much at ease in the salons of London (evoked with the meticulous detail of a 19th-century novel) as in the action sequences along the Rio Guaporé.
In fact, the film’s performances are uniformly superb. Sienna Miller is excellent as Fawcett’s wife, Mina, whose successive abandonments provide the real spine of the narrative, and so, to my astonishment, is Robert Pattinson, an actor I actively disliked before this year. He’s even better in the Safdie brothers’ down-and-dirty crime drama Good Time (soon to be released in Australia, and also excellent) but that may be because he has, in that film, the advantage of playing an actual character. As Henry Costin, Fawcett’s dependable aide-de-camp, he’s too lightly sketched: an acerbic tongue, a bushy beard, and not much more.
In adopting the classical idiom of the golden-age American and European directors he reveres, Gray occasionally crosses the line between homage and plagiarism. (One match cut here directly references Lawrence of Arabia; another sequence of shots is borrowed wholesale from the end of Fellini’s I vitelloni.) But the lapidary pleasures of the film render such nitpicking irrelevant. Gray’s images are painterly, all shadow and suggestion, and he’s aided in this respect by the extraordinary sfumato lighting of the great cinematographer Darius Khondji. His wide frames, in particular, are imbued with both an extraordinary compositional grace and an abject, piercing loneliness. But no less remarkable are individual shots: a dog standing on its hind legs over an army dress uniform laid out upon a bed; a barracks yard in the pale light before dawn. Or a lone man, on a blasted field, firing a pistol blindly at nothing. They’re the work of an artist, an auteur in an industrial system – and that’s the problem.
When I said earlier that the script had changed, I meant of course the market, for in Hollywood the means of production are inseparable from the goods produced. For about a decade, from the mid 1990s to the late 2000s, studios encouraged by the success of independents like Pulp Fiction sought to cultivate younger talents – much as major record labels did in the wake of Nirvana. Thus, every studio had its “specialty” division – Warner Independent Pictures, Fox Searchlight, Paramount Vantage – dedicated to smaller-scale, more idiosyncratic or grown-up work. In addition, there were production companies like Miramax and Focus Features, self-proclaimed bastions of “quality” storytelling. Executives were seeking out distinctive voices, and filmmakers like Gray found themselves briefly courted and sustained.
Today, many of those companies no longer exist – and if they do, they’ve been bartered and sold and restructured until little remains of their original mission. And as the studios have dumbed down, artisanal filmmakers have found themselves adrift. This may yet change: Amazon and Netflix are each rushing, Medici-like, to fill the void. (Amazon, in fact, acquired this film for the US.) Nevertheless, there’s something defiantly, thrillingly perverse about electing to make this particular movie at this particular time, a sheer bloody-mindedness that deserves respect.
There’s a point here, about an hour and 40 minutes in, when the film appears poised to end; the moment feels entirely conclusive and right. But then, unexpectedly, the story continues for another 40 minutes, as its hero embarks upon one last, hopeless attempt to reach his El Dorado. Like its subject, the film goes on because it must – because to stop at a point any normal person would consider reasonable would be to misconstrue the entire point of Fawcett’s obsession, and of his life.
What follows is bitterly sad; watching, I was reminded of a line from Rilke’s diaries, about the predicament of a man “powerless to do anything but wait for the catastrophe to become complete”. It’s that inexorable pull, towards a destiny that’s actually oblivion, which lends Fawcett’s story its air of fated inevitability, and its tragic, enduring power.
But in this sense, the film is also a lot like Gray himself – working in the tradition of Stanley Kubrick and John Ford and David Lean, long after those filmmakers have died and the industry has been up-ended, to make an old-fashioned epic that (I have little doubt) almost no one will go to see. Because, for better or worse, there’s simply no other way for him to be.
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