James Gray is a director you can count on to give you just the right amount of beauty and substance. It’s always a pleasure to watch one of his films, because the compositions are always so on-point, the technique so crisp and luminescent, and the storytelling packed with emotional beats and refined characterisation. Detractors complain that he is old-fashioned, too stately, too coldly calculating… I say, bah! I’d rather cherish someone who is meticulous about their craft than someone who just mechanically churns out the same thing over and over again, y’know?
I will say that The Lost City of Z is not exactly an emotionally-engaging work. Its protagonist is a bit of a mixed bag for me, with obsessions and particularities that are enshrined in colonial times. But hey, that’s how it goes. Gray does present him in a far better light than some contemporary historians, so at least I did get a bit misty-eyed over the father-son relationship subplot. If he was completely unsympathetic, it would have been ten times harder to engage. Charlie Hunnam does a good job of holding everything together in the classic leading man vein, and thankfully keeps that bizarre accent of his under control.
Sienna Miller, Robert Pattinson, Tom Holland, et al. all do solid work, too, but the best thing about this film is Gray’s attention to detail. He breathes life into the colonial genre, and he does so respectfully, without tying himself in knots. The settings are gorgeously rendered, the way everything is lit is sublime, and the story is ironed out in such a way that it hardly ever drags (at least, that’s my opinion). Again, not really emotionally involving, and the feminism of Sienna Miller’s character is underdeveloped, so it’s not perfect. Still, I doubt we’ll see many films that look as good as this by the end of the year.