directed by Baz Luhrmann
starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Carey Mulligan, Tobey Maguire, Joel Edgerton and Isla Fisher
11 June 2013 (seen in 2D)
For many, Jack Clayton’s 1974 adaptation of The Great Gatbsy, starring Robert Redford and Mia Farrow, will always be the definitive movie version. So with Baz Lurhmann taking on the classic story of the failed American Dream, there was always bound to be some controversy: after all, Luhrmann isn’t exactly renowned for this traditional tale-telling, as we all know from his Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge. To enjoy this particular adaptation, then, it sadly is necessary to forget the book — and undoubtedly to forget the Clayton film — as once again the flamboyant director brings his own brand of spectacle and sparkle to the Gatsby story.
With plenty of soft focus shots, anachronistic but catchy music and pure over-indulgence, The Great Gatsby certainly is a treat for the senses. The party scenes that grabbed our attention in the trailer are reeled off in full force, crammed with wildness and temptations that really do make you wish you were there. The soundtrack divides opinion (my companion at the cinema seemed most unimpressed with the idea of Jay-Z turning up in the 1920s…), but the presence of rap and hip-hop alongside jazz elements in fact captures some of the spirit of this age, yet reflects it through a modern lens. Rap and hip hop can be seen as the music of rebellion: styles which teenagers adore and parents detest, which divide generations — not all that different from the raucous jazz so beloved by the flappers of the Roaring Twenties.
Many criticisms have been levelled at the film since its first screening, but surely there can be no doubting the lead performances. Tobey Maguire (Nick Carraway) does ‘tortured soul’ very well in the new framing narrative, and manages to epitomise the optimism of the American Dream without becoming sickly-sweet or clichéd. Carey Mulligan’s (Daisy Buchanan) early charm gives way to a cold stillness very effectively by the film’s climax; Mulligan lures the audience into sympathy for Daisy, around whom all the film’s most potent emotions revolve, before shocking them with her distant aloofness in her final scenes. It is a reminder of the shallowness of people which this film seems to reveal. Elsewhere, scene-stealers Isla Fisher (Myrtle Wilson) and Jason Clarke (George Wilson) give fantastic comic and tragic performances, but feel sadly underused: considering how much the film drags at certain points, it would have benefited from a bit more screen time from this pair of electrifying actors.
In the end, though, the film belongs to Leonardo DiCaprio. Looking staggeringly young and unarguably handsome, he explores all sides of Gatsby’s enigmatic character with sensitivity and intelligence, maintaining that vital air of mystery throughout while allowing us an insight to the pains and joys of his life. While Luhrmann at times goes beyond over-the-top — the number of shots of DiCaprio’s smiling face bathed in soft sunlight, backed by a glittering soirée of excess, or framed by fireworks is frankly outrageous — DiCaprio somehow pulls it all off and carries the film with an impressive performance. He really is a “great” Gatsby.
Yet for all its visual pleasure (DiCaprio included, I must confess…), the gorgeousness of the New York and Long Island scenery becomes a drawback to the film itself. There are so many CGI backdrops and swooping, brightly-lit and highly-coloured shots of the city, that the whole thing seems totally unreal. This is perfect for the fantasy and escapism of the hedonistic parties, notably the drunken haze of Myrtle Wilson’s apartment romp, but it undermines the tragedy of the piece. It is beautiful, yes, but the dream-like appearance of the film means there is nothing real or grounded about it which could make the tragedy feel genuine, and therefore truly moving. Presumably this is the intention behind the starkly contrasting framing narrative, but the device doesn’t have enough impact to make a difference.
It is no doubt this dreamy sheen that has caused the complaints of a lack of depth in the film. This by itself is rather problematic, but could be over-looked if the plot has been structured with enough strength and power. Yet there are sections which are dragged out beyond their potential, and the whole thing feels too long, diminishing the suspense even as it is created. As events build to the climactic moment of the car crash, the overpowering heat and tension of the New York summer are evoked beautifully; yet the scenes are too drawn out, and this pressure is wasted.
This is an enjoyable adaptation, despite the criticisms of die-hard Gatsby fans: it is certainly more satisfying to view it as a stand-alone movie rather than a representation of Fitzgerald’s novel. Yet the over-indulgence of the parties is continued into some self-indulgent directorial decisions, and the film’s length and unreal, almost unnatural qualities undermine the powerful performances on display. It looks beautiful and is an entertaining watch, but in being so Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby sacrifices something to really get your teeth into.