As with last year’s Skyfall, The Great Gatsby has been a long time coming to Australia. Baz Luhrmann’s well varnished and loud retelling of F. Scott Fitzgeralds’ Great American NovelTM has been met with a deafening indifference since its premier at Cannes. If anything has bubbled to the still surface of lake criticism which could even be classed as praise, it’s that Luhrmann knows how to move a camera around and use pretty colours. Which all seems a bit unfair because, brace yourself for the cry of disbelief from the literates, for me The Great Gatsby is almost close to a future classic.
Bonds salesman by day/Writer by night, Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) moves to the village of West Egg in Long Island to take a big bite out of the Big Apple and potentially realise his dreams. Only ever twice drunk, Carraway is wide eyed and innocent in a way that’s usually reserved for puppies in windows. His second cousin, Daisy (Carey Mulligan) lives across the bay in East Egg and it’s there that he joins her for polite meals and woolly conversations. Daisy is married to Thomas Buchanan (Joel Edgerton), a broad stroke of old money and compacted arrogance who is rogering the wife of a poor mechanic. Whilst Tom’s infidelities are well known by Daisy, she fails to react. Rather hide behind the carefree visage of a flapper. Everything in Caraway’s life is peachy, if a little dry and uninspiring. However, Carraway quickly becomes enamoured with the idea of his Nuevo riche neighbour, Jay Gatsby (Leonard DiCaprio). An enigma to seemingly all, Carraway watches the glow of his all night parties from his porch until one day he is finally invited to attend one. In doing so, Carraway becomes embroiled in events that will pierce right to centre of his own life, as well as Daisy’s who has shared a romantic past with Gatsby.
And that’s the best place to leave it for fear of ruining some of the joy of discovery.
The Great Gatsby as a novel, is synonymous with being a slight but powerfully poetic story that nearly no one can find fault with. So it’s understandable that some did balk at the idea of Luhrmann touching it. This is after all the man who, in previous movies, placed a gun in Romeo’s hand and conducted a gang of elderly horny men to sing a chorus of Smells like to Teen Spirit. He is indeed a man who likes to experiment to the potential detriment of the original text.
For those looking for a restrained interpretation of the American Dream dissected should seek solace elsewhere. The Great Gatsby is as vibrant and colossal as one of the titular rich boy’s parties. Filmed in 3D, Gatsby doesn’t just reach out to the symbolic green light, he reaches out to us. All very showy and almost shallow. Almost being the operative word here, for Luhrmann has hung his narration on the device that Carraway is recalling the story 15 years later from the safety of a doctor’s office, where he is being treated for depression. Whilst this does cause problems for the flow of the film in that it sporadically slows it down – ‘You must write this down’ the doctor cries in one of the film’s acts of onanism – it serves as a gateway to a Carraway recalling the events of yesteryear. This, to me, is why the film is in a constant state of heightened reality. The raucous parties, the vilification of Gatsby’s obsessive character… It’s all there, but maybe Carraway just isn’t that reliable a narrator. Even if the details have eroded away, the emotions have stayed.
And focussing all our attention on the big party pieces that Lurhmann gives us negates the moments of intimacy. ‘I like big parties. They’re so intimate’ says Daisy’s golf pro friend Jordan ‘At small parties there isn’t any privacy.’ And Luhrmann proving this later on in a cramped sweltering hotel room, where our protagonists have holed themselves in a vain attempt to escape the summer. As the afternoon wears on, Tom and Gatsby politely go toe to toe with Tom getting the upper hand through a verbal death of a thousand cuts. Joel Edgerton is a wonderful as he stalks the scenes, taking pot shots whenever he can at Gatsby – The man from oxford in the pink suit.
And what of Gatsby himself? Like the film, I’ve waited a while to reveal him. DiCaprio, despite some hesitance on my part, is completely believable as the lovelorn and mysterious Gatsby. He owns every scene he’s in, willing to show Gatsby as vulnerable when needed. It’s a shame then that Carey Mulligan and Tobey Maguire fail to sparkle. It’s not that they can’t act, it’s just they seem to solely be there to react to things. In the instance of Carraway this can be justified, but for Daisy who plays a large part in Gatsby’s life, it’s a bit of problem. At times, we’re never truly convinced that she warrants so much attention from Gatsby.
There are many angles with which to take Gatsby and whilst Luhrmann’s does not contain the florid nature of Fitzgerald’s verse, the book will still be there for those who need it. Luhrmann has made a bold movie that does something the serious analysis and coveting of the text will not achieve, it opens it up to the wider public. Like Gatsby himself, The Great Gatsby has got to be like this. It’s got keep moving on. And if it makes someone pick up a copy on their way back from the cinema what harm has it really done?