Directed by: Baz Luhrmann
After being delayed by five months, my most awaited film of last year finally comes out, in the shape of a Baz Luhrmann (Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge!) adaptation of one of my favourite novels of all time, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. The trailer promised it to be a grand, glamorous and over the top three-dimensional film that the roaring twenties and the extravagant world of Jay Gatsby demands, leading to high expectations of a man known to be more style than substance. Luckily, so was Gatsby.
For those who don’t know, The Great Gatsby is a story narrated by Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) about his neighbour, the mysterious Mr. Gatsby, who throws the most lavish parties every weekend at his castle of a house in West Egg, Long Island, attended by pretty much everyone in New York. But there’s more to him than the parties, and wealth and fancy suits. He is driven by his desire to get back the love of his life, Daisy (Carey Mulligan), who married someone else, when he went off to war.
As an adaptation is fairly faithful, but one major addition to the story is the way Nick narrates the whole story. In a novel, there isn’t any need to contextualise the narration of a story, but in a film, as the 1974 Jack Clayton version proved, just a voice-over doesn’t work particularly well. Using an idea Fitzgerald had for his unfinished final novel The Last Tycoon, Luhrmann begins his film with Nick Carraway in a sanitarium, for morbid alcoholism, insomnia, and various other ‘conditions’, presumably occurring because of his time in New York. He begins to tell his doctor the story of Jay Gatsby, but when he decides he doesn’t want to talk about it, it is suggested he writes instead. When I first heard this was how they were bookending the film, I wasn’t so keen, even on knowing it was based on something Fitzgerald considered doing in his own work, however after seeing it play out, giving it some structure makes sense.
Gatsby went through a lot to get to the point where he could throw these massive parties to impress Daisy, and Leonardo DiCaprio plays him with a slight hint of desperation and a delusional sense of hope. ‘The cool man in the cool suit’ is all very well, but it’s not a believable characteristic and I think DiCaprio was right to not go in the Robert Redford direction. As a massive fan of the book, I could not be more pleased with his performance. Tobey Maguire makes quite a decent Nick Carraway. In the book he often gets a little forgotten as just the narrator, and there is a danger of that happening on film, but Maguire makes his presence known, and the way he and Carey Mulligan work together make his being the third-wheel in Gatsby and her relationship a little less awkward. Daisy is a difficult character to realise, I think, because whoever plays her has to get across what it is exactly about her that makes Gatsby love her so, that he did so much just to get her back, and in doing this Daisy becomes more of an ideal to the audience, rather than a fully rounded character. And that isn’t helped by the fact we only ever see her with the men in her life. She’s never alone in the novel either, so it’s not something I can blame on Luhrmann and co-writer Craig Pearce, but as a character there could be more to Daisy than what we get. Of what we do see, Carey Mulligan is wonderful. What works in her performance is something that is easy to forget about Daisy, that’s she’s quite young. She was eighteen when she fell in love with Gatsby, and married Tom less than a year later. Mulligan looks stunning throughout, particularly the first shot we get of her, peering over the sofa, is beautiful.
It was great seeing Bollywood actor Amitabh Bachchan in the all too short role of Meyer Wolfsheim. There isn’t enough Elizabeth Debicki, who’s brilliant as Jordan Baker, in the film. The relationship between her and Nick Carraway is mostly left out in this version, which is a shame but makes sense in that we’re not distracted from the main storyline. I was a little disappointed by Isla Fisher’s Myrtle, but it might just be because of my own idea’s of what the character is like. Joel Edgerton as Tom Buchanan, Daisy’s husband, is good, particularly towards the end, in the room at the Plaza. That scene is probably where everyone’s acting abilities are on full display.
No one, in Hollywood at least, does such over the top pomp and flair quite like he does, and the film wouldn’t be the same without it. From the sweeping shots of the green light, and crossing the bay, the billowing white curtains in the Buchanan mansion, which is an absolutely stunning moment, to the blasts of confetti at Gatsby’s parties, it’s all a joy to watch. The costumes are amazing, the attention to detail is evident. I also felt like they stood out an awful lot more than they usually do in films, but maybe that’s because of the ridiculous number of jewels encrusted on Daisy’s dresses. The only visual thing about Luhrmann’s films I dislike is the usual of artificial slow-motion; it is one of the most aesthetically displeasing editing technique, to me anyway. The way every other line is delivered with a emphatic pause, as if it’s the most important dialogue you’ll ever hear does get slightly annoying, but after the big moment of DiCaprio announcing that he is Gatsby, as fireworks go off in the background, and he holds out a drink to you in 3D as if giving a toast in your name, everything else seems a bit tame. Somehow, Luhrmann gets away with it though. In any other film by any other director, it would be completely ridiculous, and yet in the world of the man behind Moulin Rouge!, it’s somehow acceptable. Or maybe I’m too forgiving and a little crazy. The Jay Z produced soundtrack works well, and it’s a shame the songs aren’t used more. The only issue is that using music that is contemporary to us, might not make sense a few years down the line, and it might date the film a lot quicker than using a more conventional period soundtrack.
Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation of Fitzgerald’s novel is far from the perfect film, but he does everything with style and flair, I can’t help but enjoy it. As Jordan Baker says, pretty much summing up my opinion of Baz Luhrmann’s Gatsby, and I guess his films in general: “Well I don’t care. He gives large parties, and I like large parties.” But past the high glitz and glamour of the first half an hour or so, there’s a wonderful love story there too, which Luhrmann does equally well. I’m fairly happy to say that this version is the best adaptation we’ve got of The Great Gatsby.
The Great Gatsby is out now in 3D and 2D.
- Thoughts on The Great Gatsby (1974) (maahinandfilms.wordpress.com)
- The Great Gatsby Soundtrack Sampler (maahinandfilms.wordpress.com)