Baz Luhrmann's Great Gatsby is a glitzy and intriguing revamping of F. Scott Fitzgerald's American classic while Toby Maguire proves to be the film's gem
Gatsby, what Gatsby? Yes old sport, one of the most eagerly anticipated films of the year hit our screens a couple of weeks back, with its release date having already been delayed 6 months and the obvious pressures of adapting one of the greatest 20th century novels to the screen, expectations were naturally high. There are already four film versions of F. Scott Fitzgerald's 1925 novel, yet all four are generally considered to be duds, so it was down to Moulin Rouge director Baz Luhrmann to try and turn the luck around. Anyone who's seen Moulin Rouge or indeed Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet will know that while he's a successful auteur, he has a rather glamourous cinematic style, often splitting critics.
So it was no surprise to hear that the film divided reviewers with various mumblings about the Jay-Z produced soundtrack and flashy visuals talked about. Regardless of this I went into the cinema open minded, mostly because of Luhrmann's decent track record (Australia excluded) and not to mention its stellar cast. The great Jay Gatsby in question is played by the consistently brilliant Leonard DiCaprio, Carey Mulligan and Joel Edgerton as Daisy and Tom Buchanan respectively, Elizabeth Debicki as Jordan Baker and of course the book's narrator and our eyes and ears, Nick Carraway, played by Toby Maguire.
The film starts with Maguire's Nick Carraway describing to a Doctor events that transpired recently which resulted in him having a nervous breakdown. Carraway, struggling to focus his mind is told to start writing his story down on paper. At the start of summer, 1922, Nick leaves the mid-west and heads east to New York, becoming a bond salesman and settling in a small house in Long Island, right next to a luxurious mansion, owned by Jay Gatsby, a mysterious businessman who tends to throw lavish parties. Nick also lives across the river from his cousin, Daisy Buchanan and her husband and Nick's former college friend, Tom. He goes to visit, also meeting fellow socialite and golfer, Jordan Baker. While at dinner it is clear Daisy and Tom are having marriage issues, as it becomes obvious that Tom is having an affair.
Nick is quickly sucked into the grand New York party scene, awash with bootlegged drinking, drugs, money and sex, as he becomes disheartened with his friend Tom and his affair with the wife of a poor mechanic, Myrtle Wilson (Isla Fisher). He also receives a personal invitation from Mr Gatsby to attend one of his parties, once getting there realising he is the only one to get such a personal invite, everyone else just turns up. Nick immediately gets caught up in Gatsby's thrilling party life, while also meeting back up with Jordan Baker as they discuss the man behind these huge, electrifying events. Nick hears various rumours about the secluded millionaire, ranging from him being family to the old Kaiser Wilhelm, to the idea that he might not even exist.
Yet Gatsby finally introduces himself to Nick, taking a shine to the young bond salesman, inviting him out to various trips and meet ups in the city. But his motive isn't friendship, Nick finds out that Jay is hoping to capture the heart of his cousin, Daisy. They were once lovers over 5 years ago, and Gatsby is still hopelessly besotted with her. He asks Nick a favour, Gatsby hopes to once again meet up with Daisy, and despite her husband, fall in love again and make her his wife. The pair begin their long expected love affair, with Gatsby revealing he built his riches, the mansion, the pool, the luxury clothes, all to win her back. Yet with Daisy seemingly back in love with Jay, but constantly dropping hints that their life together can't happen, things begin to take a more tragic and troubling turn. Despite Gatsby's confidence and hope, events only get worse, accumulating in a harrowing disarray of heartbreak and disillusion.
Luhrmann's take on The Great Gatsby is a visual thrill ride, flashy, loud, and full of colour. From the desolate valley of the ashes to the high rising skyscrapers of the city, Luhrmann's vision rains rich vibrancy over Manhattan. I couldn't fault the visuals, they are a means of escapism for the audience as they are drawn into the glitzy life of America's wealthy. At times, it can feel somewhat cartoonish and a little over polished, but this takes nothing away from the overall feel. The film's soundtrack is built up of modern songs produced by Jay-Z, I still remain slightly torn over the music, but am leaning towards a positive outlook of it. The songs certainly reflect the immense riches and glamorous parties of the wealthy on screen, and it certainly doesn't distract from the power of the story. They also fit the visuals perfectly, the bright neon reds and the emerald greens which so enrich the champagne living of the elite. Still, it would have been interesting, and slightly more fitting to see a film set to the music of the era, after all Fitzgerald did name it the 'Jazz age'.
I also noticed some small technical issues, in the 2D edition anyway. During one such car scene as Gatsby drives the naive Nick into the city, I realised some of the speech was out of sync, it seemed disappointing that on such a vast production that an error like this was left unobserved. However, none of these more technical criticisms distract from the story or the high quality of acting on screen. I feel Luhrmann should be very much praised for his take on the story, it's a loud, highly ambitious project, you can clearly see his wondrous, dazzling vision of Gatsby, and in the end, he pulls it off.
I obviously expected high quality acting given the big names in the cast, and they certainly deliver. Leonardo DiCaprio is the charming aloof Gatsby in every way. From that smile to the suits, he is magnificent. You see the mysterious socialite, yet also the sweet insecure heart of a man hopelessly in love, anchoring his hopes and dreams on the decision of a single woman. It's tragic, you can see the delusion in DiCaprio's eyes. He is at his most brilliant when he gets frustrated with Nick, who tries to drag Gatsby back to reality, he becomes stubbornly paranoid and naively hopeful. It is everything you expect from the always superb DiCaprio.
Carey Mulligan is a class act, you won't forget her opening scene easily as she looks up at the audience, all doe eyed and bewitching. While you also won't forget the sorrow in her eyes at the first mention of Gatsby, a look of lost love and a clear feeling of regret. Mulligan has become one of my favourite actress' ever since her meteoric rise after appearing in 2009's An Education. Her portrayal of the delightfully pure yet money obsessed and ultimately cowardly Daisy is spot on. It's this wide eyed innocence partnered with a darker side that truly makes her a 'beautiful little fool'.
Toby Maguire does a terrific job of portraying our narrator, Nick Carraway. I've found Maguire can have a tendency to become annoying in some films, so I was surprised and delighted when not only did he put in a first rate performance but the best performance in the film. Much like Daisy, Nick seems to have an innocence about him, the idea of a young man coming to the big city, staying in a quaint little cottage next to a mansion, he is the character we most identify with, and becomes the most likeable figure on screen. We become disillusioned with the lifestyle of the rich as he does, we see him inevitably change as the story plows on. From young hopeful bonds salesman to boozy and bitter wallflower to the Gatsby, Tom and Daisy love triangle. His greatest moments come when the veil of superficiality is lifted and Nick can speak his mind, his outbursts of anger, of spitefulness at the whole tragic passing of his kind and optimistic friend Gatsby. This is a really understated yet distinguished performance from Toby.
In supporting roles, I loved Joel Edgerton as Tom Buchanan, the total opposite to Gatsby. Old money vs new money, flirtatious promiscuity vs devoted, faithful love. He is unlikeable from the start, but undoubtedly loves Daisy, prompting the tragic moral struggle for Daisy's heart. Elizabeth Debicki is great as Jordan, caring and classy, yet ultimately shallow. My only fault with the acting however doesn't lie with the actors, but with the script and Luhrmann's direction. The best scenes in the film are when the characters lose their mask of false kindness, and lash out in real emotion at each other, allowing the actors to really let loose. The problem is, is that these scenes are few and far between with the phony facade of insincerity that follows the rich appearing all too often. Raw emotion is needed to really drive the story home.
The Great Gatsby is a truly haunting and tragic romance, and Luhrmann's take on it is a thing of kaleidoscopic beauty. At times it can feel like he substitutes real narrative for visual luster, but it says something that to this day the most endearing aspect of this novel turned film is its powerful story. F. Scott Fitzgerald's original tale is the real winner, and with all literary agendas aside, this is a fantastic and powerful film.