Critic, heal thyself: As I prepared to write a lamentation about how, well into his 20-plus-year movie-making career, nobody quite appreciates director James Gray's talents enough, I chanced to look back at what I wrote about his previous feature, 2013's The Immigrant. The word I used to describe his dramatic style was "sturdy," which is precisely the problem. Gray tells cinematic stories without flash or dazzle, focused on character, but with remarkable skill. If there's no better word for that kind of movie than "sturdy," there's a problem with the language, or with what we expect from movies.
Perhaps there's something fitting about Gray's current thematic concerns, given the fact that he is so rarely part of the conversation about the greatest American filmmakers younger than 50. In The Immigrant, he examined people at a crossroads between the assumptions of society and a kind of respect that seems out of reach. He digs even deeper into that idea with The Lost City of Z, which turns a stranger-than-fiction, real-life story into a meditation on colonialism, class and a world that can't seem to see past whatever label it places on something.
The center of the story is Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam), a British soldier and family man stationed in Ireland circa 1905. Fawcett seeks advancement within the ranks, but as one nobleman delicately puts it, he has been "rather unfortunate in his choice of ancestors"—specifically, a father who was a gambler and a drunk. He's so desperate to shed that inherited shame that he's willing to take on a dangerous assignment: leading a team into the Amazon Basin to survey the contested border between Brazil and Bolivia. Along the way, however, Fawcett finds what he believes to be evidence of a highly advanced Pre-Columbian civilization—a conviction that becomes an obsession over the next 20 years of his life.
The events of Fawcett's life dictate an unusual structure to The Lost City of Z (pronounced with the British "zed"), which can feel a bit jarring. Segments alternate between his domestic life with his wife Nina (Sienna Miller) and children, and his various expeditions that repeatedly fall frustratingly short of his goal. Those exploration sequences offer a grueling sense of adventure, full of piranha feeding frenzies, turbulent rapids and attacks by indigenous tribes, while a chapter set in the trenches of World War I delivers a similar urgency. The hard cuts of Fawcett's life back to civilized normalcy, by contrast, might give viewers just as much of a sense of whiplash as they gave him.
Those repeated shifts between two worlds are crucial, however, to what Gray himself is exploring. Fawcett's need to find "Z" is linked to his own diminished societal station, and to the inconceivable-to-the-British notion that a great civilization could exist among the heathen savages of South America. Where Fawcett faces repeated indignities back in England—including a pompous participant on one of his journeys (Angus Macfadyen) threatening to sue him if he doesn't offer a proper apology—his Amazon travels become a perfect meritocracy, where success is based entirely on the ability to adapt and survive, and occasionally even interact with the indigenous peoples.
Hunnam sells that psychological journey with a compelling mix of zeal and British restraint, and that's not an easy combination to pull off. The supporting cast is full of equally strong performances, including a nigh-unrecognizable Robert Pattinson as Percy's traveling companion Henry Costin, and Sienna Miller finding reserves of frustration beyond the stereotypical "you care more about [x] than you care about your own family" wife. That family dynamic grows even richer when the contentious relationship between Percy and his eldest son, Jack (new Spider-Man Tom Holland), hints at the idea that Percy's issues with his own absentee father are being repeated in another generation. When Gray ends this movie, as he did The Immigrant, with a lovely image reflected in a mirror, it's a reminder of the layers of depth he offers both visually and textually. That's wonderful stuff for a tale about how you don't need fussy elites to decide for you that you've accomplished something remarkable.