Director: Baz Luhrmann
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tobey Maguire, Carey Mulligan, Joel Edgerton, Elizabeth Debicki, Isla Fisher, Jason Clarke, Jack Thompson
F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, often referred to as ‘the great American novel,’ is arguably the sacred text of American literature. The tale of the mysterious millionaire Jay Gatsby who returns to reclaim his long lost love, provides a snapshot of the opulence and extravagance of the roaring Twenties, and an insight into the darker side of the great American Dream of the self-made man. Multiple attempts have been made over the years to bring Fitzgerald’s story to the screen, but none have really satisfied. The level of reverence towards the source material means that any film adaptation is going to encounter a certain amount of pushback from an audience with a strong idea in their head of what the story is supposed to look like.
Australian director Baz Luhrmann is not the type to shy away from the challenge of taking on a literary giant. After all, this is the man who made his name with his non-traditional approach to Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, and literary figures don’t come much bigger than William Shakespeare. With The Great Gatsby, what we get from the director is his interpretation rather than merely an adaptation. While he retains a high level of respect for the source material and sticks very closely to Fitzgerald’s narrative – with the exception of adding a framing device which sees our narrator Carraway recounting the events to his therapist – Luhrmann is not content to simply provide the images for Fitzgerald’s words. He gives us “Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby,” the Gatsby that only he could make. He takes a chance in that regard, but he needed to. The 1974 version of the film – directed by Jack Clayton and starring Robert Redford and Mia Farrow – is a very conservative adaptation of the story and the result is an incredibly boring film. Love him or hate him, Baz brings something to the fold.
Luhrmann is, of course, a specialist in artifice, and with his production designer wife Catherine Martin, he provides a visual and aural extravaganza. The Great Gatsby is a period drama unlike any other you’ve seen. It is a feast of art deco style, with design and costume coming straight out of the 1920s – as an aside, you are looking at the early Oscar frontrunner in the Best Costume Design category. This period design is then contrasted with an overt digital element, used both to enhance the set design and geography, as well as in the cinematography. Luhrmann and cinematographer Simon Duggan employ a style of digital cinematography we are more used to seeing in action blockbusters like The Avengers, employing a number of impossible, artificial camera angles and swooping cinematography.
While the film’s visual style sets it apart from most period dramas, by far its most controversial element is its soundtrack. While the films diegetic music (music whose source is within the world of the film, like a radio or record player) is all in keeping with the era, the non-diegetic music (the soundtrack laid over the onscreen action) draws primarily from contemporary music, particularly RnB. The soundtrack includes the likes of Jay Z (also an executive producer on the film), Beyonce, Jack White, SIA, NEYO, will.i.am and Lana Del Rey. Much like the 3D photography, the use of contemporary music on the soundtrack is a device that is meant to draw you into the film. Hearing contemporary RnB music at Gatsby’s parties gives them a certain familiarity, making them a more relatable and as a result more immersive and overwhelming experience. But while it is an interesting device, I can’t help but feel the music is one element of the films which is not going to date well. There will come a time, and it won’t be too far into the future, when the film’s soundtrack feels neither of the period nor contemporary and as such just seems strange.
In the midst of this swirling visual and aural experience are four strong performances. Gatsby is, after all, a story built about relationships. Tobey Maguire as Nick Carraway provides the film’s centre and the audience’s eyes and ears, with Luhrmann sticking to Fitzgerald’s device of telling the story from Carraway’s point of view. Luhrmann once described Carey Mulligan as “the actress of her generation,” and while Daisy is not really a meaty enough part to allow her to live up to that hype, she does bring an innocence to the role. DiCaprio, as the mysterious Gatsby, does not appear until half an hour into the film. But in the moment of his entrance, to the soaring tones of Gershwin’s ‘Rhapsody in Blue,’ he shows that despite not having really done it since Titanic, Leo can still play Hollywood heartthrob. The most eye-catching performance of the picture though is from Joel Edgerton. Playing Daisy’s brutish husband, Tom Buchanan, Edgerton is at times an almost hulking presence. Yet despite being ostensibly the villain of the film, and despite treating Daisy horribly, Edgerton brings just enough nuance to Buchanan that you feel something for him as he watches his wife being stolen away by Gatsby.
Luhrmann’s Gatsby has polarised critics, as Luhrmann’s films are want to do. But coming on the back of numerous other failed attempts at adapting Fitzgerald’s novel – at least four others by my count – I can’t help but wonder does the question needs to be asked, are the elements which make Fitzgerald’s novel great not ones which can easily be translated to the screen? Does the brilliance of Fitzgerald’s novel come from something other than simply its narrative or its characters? Or is it simply the case that the right filmmaker hasn’t attempted it yet?
In the meantime, Baz Luhrmann has given us a characteristically glitzy and visually extravagant take on the classic story which is sure to please audiences and make a pile of money, even if it does leave the literary purists slightly dissatisfied.
Rating – ★★★☆
Review by Duncan McLean