t h e g r e a t g a t s b y
16th May 2013
19th May 2013
Baz Luhrmann's greatly anticipated The Great Gatsby finally reveals itself and is a riotous ride of noise and colour in this hit and miss adaptation of Fitzgerald's most beloved novella.
We open with the movie's narrator, Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) admitted into a drying out clinic due mostly to morbid alcoholism at the end of the roaring 20's golden age. Here he is encouraged to write to make himself feel better and he pours his heart out about the story of his summer spent in a little cottage in West Egg, next door to one J Gatsby (Leo DiCaprio). Carraway is an outsider in the rich world he is inhabiting through his second cousin Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan) and then his association with his neighbour Gatsby. It's a shame that Maguire is not the right casting for this role, or is not playing it right anyway. Too much of the film depends on his performance and furthermore the device Luhrmann uses of pages and writing appearing on the screen around a stressed Carraway is too heavy handed a way of dealing with a writer whose prose is all about subtlety. Lacking in subtlety also is West Egg, where Carraway rents his little cottage next door to Gatsby's McMansion. It is a place of new money, the nouveau riche; it faces East Egg which is all about class and old money. Gastby's mansion is directly opposite the house where Daisy lives with her overbearing husband Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton). This is not accidental, Gatsby and Daisy were once in love but parted during the war and unable to rekindle their romance due to Gatsby's lack of money. All Gatsby has done since then is for Daisy and Carraway is there to watch as everything starts to crumble.
The world Lurhmann and Catherine Martin have created is stunning and utterly true to their brand. Dr Eckleberg's glasses on a peeling billboard peering down over the poor struggling on steamy hot tarmac in the Valley of Ashes is magnificently realised. The 3D is also used thoughtfully, blending in subtly throughout the film. It is well done. Visually I can't think of one thing to criticise, the costumes are absolutely beautiful, the production design exquisite. It's just that the story of Gatsby is so much more than a superficial one so it does feel that the dramatic side lost weight to the sparkly side, but this is a Baz Luhrmann movie after all so this should hardly be a surprise. The usual Lurhmann props are in full effect here - Swooping shots, city scape tableaux, high kitsch and although some of it feels strangely out of place in this film. Perhaps because the story itself has more gravitas than the previous 'red curtain' trilogy that it is slightly jarring to have this hyper unreal scenes interspersed with moments of drama. It doesn't always work. There are some fantastically opulent and exciting scenes, and of course every party scene is a spectacular. A scene with Myrtle, Buchanan's cheap mistress (Isla Fisher) and her bizarre cronies is like a jazz filled candy store - completely over the top, vulgar and utterly pantomime. I particularly liked the scene where Gatsby and Daisy first reunite in Nick's cottage, it is well played by all three actors and looks beautiful, like a painting.
Much has been made of the Jay Z soundtrack. For me it worked just fine however I would have preferred the variety as Lurhmann used to such brilliant effect in Moulin Rouge and Romeo and Juliet. As this was a time of innovation and excitement it would have been nicer to hear something surprising to accompany the images.
Joel Edgerton is wonderful as bullying and boorish Tom, a role which could easily become tedious and overbearing in the wring hands but Edgerton somehow gives us the man behind the pomp and shows us a humanity that makes us able to empathise with him. He actually does such a good job that I ended up liking him more than most of the other characters which I don't think is quite the point. When the confrontation that has been simmering between Gatsby and Tom finally comes to a head it is one the best dramatic scenes in the film, Edgerton and DiCaprio both shine in these tense, well played moments, it's a standout. Tobey Maguire has a limited amount of facial expressions that soon become a little tiresome and his laconic voice means the already somewhat irritating narrative device feels like wading through marshmallow, but he just about pulls it off.
So to Gatsby and Daisy. To play Daisy Buchanan is no easy task and although Mulligan looks very pretty, has the best American accent I've ever heard from a Brit, and is just darling in the role - it just doesn't feel like she embodied Daisy entirely. Although nailing Daisy's vulnerability she just doesn't have the other side of Daisy pegged and it is a little hard to believe DiCaprio's Gatsby going to these great lengths for this Daisy. Elizabeth Debicki who plays celebrity golfer and socialite Jordan is outstanding and whenever the two women are on screen it saddens me to say ones eye is drawn to Debicki away from Mulligan and this shouldn't be the case - Daisy ought to be the 'sparking diamond' but she just isn't. Carraway's comment about Daisy and Tom, that they 'break people' is what is missing in Mulligan, it is Daisy's careless cruelty is missing. The whole point of Daisy is that she is not worthy of Gatsby's love, that he is the better person but she is of the higher class, there's just too much sweetness in Mulligan's Daisy and not enough spice. I feel bad writing this because I think Carey Mulligan really is an actress of considerable talent but here she is simply miscast. If any actor of his generation can pull off the multi layered duplicitous Gatsby whilst retaining some charm it is DiCaprio. He looks like a millionaire playboy and gives Gatsby enough mystery, charm and fragility to believe in him. It's a good fit.
This film version of Gatsby is saying far less than the literary Gatsby does about America in this time and it certainly dilutes the point Fitzgerald was making about the vulgarity and cruelty of the upper classes. The people that attend the parties all seem rather fabulous, the world much more enticing than the poverty of the valley of the ashes and that really is rather missing the point. Unlike any other Luhrmann movie (bar Australia) I didn't cry, I wanted to cry, dammit! At the end of The Great Gatsby I felt like I was emerging from one of Gatsby's marvellous parties - carrying one shoe, glitter in hair, blinking as the sun comes up, not entirely sure what had just happened. It may be puddle deep but it sure is a pretty little puddle.
Check out The Great Gatsby trailer here.