The Great Gatsby (2013)

“Hello old sport”: Leonardo DiCaprio is The Great Gatsby

Director: Baz Luhrmann

Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio (Jay Gatsby), Tobey Maguire (Nick Carraway), Carey Mulligan (Daisy Buchanan), Joel Edgerton (Tom Buchanan), Elizabeth Debicki (Jordan Baker), Isla Fisher (Myrtle Wilson), Jason Clarke (George Wilson), Amitabh Bachchan (Meyer Wolfsheim), Jack Thompson (Dr Walter Perkins), Adelaide Clemens (Catherine)

The Great Gatsby is possibly the great American novel. I’ve only read it once, but I certainly admired its beautiful prose, capturing of an era of American life and understanding of the fragility behind America’s love of success. Baz Luhrmann is clearly a fan, as he spent years putting together this passion project, presenting the biggest, brashest version of Fitzgerald you are ever going to see.

Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) is a young writer turned bonds salesman in 1920s New York. He lives across the bay from his cousin, Daisy (Carey Mulligan) and her husband Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton), a brash old-money man carrying on an affair with Myrtle (Isla Fisher), the wife of his garage mechanic. Carroway’s next-door neighbour is the sumptuously wealthy, but mysterious, Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio) whose parties and generosity are legendary. As Carraway gets to know Gatsby (as much as anyone can), he discovers that Gatsby has a deep, near obsessive, love for Daisy.

Luhrmann’s film is a technicolour explosion that uses many of the techniques you’ll be familiar with from any of director’s other films. The camera is a whirligig of motion. The colours are bright and primary. The whole tone of the film (certainly for its first hour) is larger than life. The narrative has been tweaked to take on the tone of a Greek Tragedy, with the loud noise, fast camera moves and speedy pace all inverted in the latter half to invoke sadness and tragedy. And of course, the music is deliberately anachronistic, mixing modern genre music with 1920s sounds.

Sometimes this high-budget technicolour brilliance does feel like it is partly getting in the way of the deeper themes that lie within the original. But that might be partly because the novel’s themes are so reliant on internalised feelings, unsaid or guessed emotions, and deeply purple prose, that these are ideas which are very hard to translate to the screen.

There is something to be said for Luhrmann turning one of the pillars of 20th-century American culture into a spiritual sequel to Moulin Rouge!. And Moulin Rouge! is what the film strongly resembles, not only in design, but its romantic structure, poetic retelling, high drama, sense of impending doom and danger behind the bright lights, assault on class and the way it stands in the way of true love, and the lack of freedom in our lives. Both even have sad, reflective authors book-ending events.

So your enjoyment of the film is probably going to depend on how you feel about Luhrmann’s OTT style. Love Moulin Rouge! and Romeo + Julietand you will probably find something to enjoy here (and you’ll also notice his love of tragic love stories). Saying that, of those three, Gatsby is the one the carries the least depth to it, which is intriguing as it probably mines the most psychologically rich source material. While Luhrmann understands that the book is about the real emotions masked by explosive parties and opulence – the film often feels as choked by these things as the characters do.

This is partly because I feel both Maguire’s and Mulligan’s performances don’t quite work. Maguire is so stripped back, quiet and passive he almost disappears – you don’t get a sense of Carraway as either a shrewd observer or someone wrapped up in events: instead he’s a passenger, like the plot contrivance Gatsby sometimes treats him as. Similarly, Mulligan is slightly overwhelmed by the movie, not giving a strong enough performance for her to break through. The film powers forward with such momentum and brashness, it squashes her.

It’s probably why the most successful lead performance by far comes from DiCaprio. He’s perfectly cast as Gatsby: so good in fact you wish he was in a more thoughtful, relaxed film that would give him a more of a chance to breathe. DiCaprio perfectly encapsulates the desperation just beneath Gatsby’s surface, the fear and uncertainty that lies under his suave urbanity. He completely gets the character, understands he is a showman presenting a front to the world because that’s what he thinks the world wants, but who is, in his own way, as empty and lost as the world of bright lights he is offering people. It’s an excellent performance.

Luhrmann’s work with DiCaprio is what gives the film it’s centre and, for all the colour, noise and joy of the first 40 minutes or so, it finds its heart in the moments of acting and character interplay as the Gatsby-Daisy-Tom love triangle comes to a head. This scene, with its bubbling emotions, high stakes and tension is like an oasis of calm in the high-faluting scenery that surrounds it. But then this is a film where the smaller moments actually come across as richer than the larger ones – partly helped by the fact that Joel Edgerton and Elizabeth Debicki both give excellent performances as the key supporting characters. 

The Great Gatsby captures the feel of Fitzgerald rather well, but for all the dialogue of the book placed over the film in voiceover, it never quite manages to capture the spirit of the book in the same way. It looks wonderful, and its dynamic filming is certainly enjoyably impressive, but it doesn’t quite become a film that deals in emotions and depth. It flashes and fizzles but it never lets us really soak in its ideas and themes. It’s all too much at times, and the tragic sadness at the heart of the story, of this lost boy trying to live the life of a man, never comes out as it should. An interesting and entertaining film, but not one that will last.

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