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Filmmaker James Gray has made a name for himself by crafting intricate, intimately detailed human dramas that buck narrative conventions. Although he typically works in previously established genres, Gray has always found ways to subvert clichés while continually delivering thought provoking, entertaining cinematic experiences. The Lost City of Z, an expertly mounted retelling of David Grann’s nearly unadaptable bestselling non-fiction account of a repeatedly doomed exploration to an uncharted portion of the Amazon in the early 1900s, is no exception. What could have become a thoroughly dumbed down adventure picture or a stuffy, grandstanding period piece becomes, instead, a fascinating, resplendent character study.

British military man and explorer Colonel Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam) has never received proper due for his achievements. Kept at an arm’s length by the aristocracy thanks to his family’s lineage and the constant threat of having to be sent back into battle, Fawcett, a family man with a wife (Sienna Miller) and young son, gets forced into taking a thankless, potentially deadly cartography job. He’s sent to help map a portion of the Amazonian jungle on the Peruvian border that has previously remained unreachable by civilized man, and fabled to be some sort of El Dorado-ish land of gold and riches. Fawcett and his crew – including the taciturn, skeptical, and resourceful Henry Costin (Robert Pattinson) – survive the mission (despite losing many crew members), and the explorer returns claiming he has proof that a City he has dubbed Z was once home to an ancient civilization that predates recorded history. He’s mocked and rebuffed constantly by the still religiously minded powers that be, but Fawcett would return to the area for another ill fated expedition that seemingly put an end to his exploratory ways (well, that and the arrival of World War I). It’s not until Fawcett’s adult son Jack (Tom Holland) shows an interest in his dad’s work that the colonel is able to get closer than he ever had before.

It’s easy to Google how Fawcett’s travels were plagued by disasters (both man-made and unavoidable) or how Grann’s book ends, but writer-director Gray (The Immigrant, Two Lovers, We Own the Night) doesn’t concern himself with trying to foreshadow things for the audience. In a departure from the style of Grann’s account of Fawcett’s explorations – which make it known up-front just how mysterious and ill fated many of the journeys to the Amazon were – Gray plays everything chronologically and deliberately. Some might call this approach slow, but I prefer to think of it as meticulous. Gray builds a distinct sense of appreciation for what Fawcett tried to do and underlines the significance of it all by displaying every difficulty in all its glory or folly. Such attentions to detail and character have been hallmarks of Gray’s career, but here they’re used to their most rousing effect yet.

The Lost City of Z also harkens back to a visual style of film that hasn’t been attempted very much since Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate landed with an enormous thud a little less than 40 years ago. I mean this as a highest form of compliment. Gray knows that Fawcett led a fantastical, often dangerous, frequently opulent life of relative privilege, and as a filmmaker he seeks to revel in every small detail. The gorgeous cinematography from Darius Khondji (Amour, Seven) always lasts a few seconds longer than most other films – especially studio backed films such as this one – would often allow. It’s auteur driven and designed to entrance, but never haughty and arrogant. Again, this isn’t atypical of Gray’s past work, but for a production of this scale, the filmmaker’s doting on small details strikes as delightful and playful.

And if Gray’s casting choices for such a period drama seem a bit contemporary or odd, I assure you they are perfect for the job. Pattinson plays a strong, relatively silent type quite well, nearly disappearing into his part so totally that recognizing him could be difficult. The same can be said of Holland and Miller, although they don’t have very much to do until the final third of the film. The biggest surprise here, outside of how well The Lost City of Z works, is Hunnam, who finally gets a meaty role that allows him to show a considerable amount of charm, charisma, and acting ability. Hunnam has been fine or passable in some of his previous roles, but here he becomes an actor worthy of following in the future.

Plenty of people might balk at the pacing, and even more at the purposefully and unavoidably ambiguous conclusion, but that’s all part of the material’s delightful mystery, and kudos to James Gray from not shying away from being just a little bit obtuse.