(directed by Baz Luhrmann, 2013)
Baz Luhrmann has made a speciality of doomed love affairs in frenzied, hedonistic settings: the swaggering drug-hazed playground of Verona Beach in his Romeo and Juliet, and the absinthe-tinted alleyways of Montmartre in Moulin Rouge. His take on the American Jazz Age in The Great Gatsby should have been sparkling. And there are moments of visual splendour, but it feels slightly strained, as if Luhrmann is trying very hard (against his instincts) to rein in his usual manic directorial style. It’s as if he set out to make, comparatively speaking, a more understated film. And the problem is that understatement isn’t really his forte.
Luhrmann at his most enjoyable in the high-octane kitsch of Moulin Rouge, where the love story becomes as wildly theatrical as its setting. His Romeo and Juliet, though it had quieter moments, was anchored by the superb text. Here in The Great Gatsby, apart from a couple of reliably flamboyant set-pieces, the film never really blazes into life. This is a story where the emotional charge comes from the spaces between the words; the silences; the things unsaid; and, despite some good performances, the film doesn’t match the book’s subtle probing of what lies beneath the superficial glamour of personality. Having said this, it’s still visually impressive and Luhrmann definitely has flair, but there’s a hollowness at its core – much like the glittering culture it depicts. I should add, before talking about this film, that I haven’t seen the classic 1974 version of The Great Gatsby, so my judgement is based entirely on this version’s relationship to the book.
Beginning with the structure… I wasn’t convinced by Luhrmann’s decision to frame the story with scenes of Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) with his therapist, looking back on events. It felt superfluous. Admittedly it must be hard to translate Nick from page to screen, because in the book we engage with him by default – he’s the narrator and every aspect of the story is seen through his considering, critical eyes. In the film, by contrast, we no longer see through his eyes but through our own. Deprived of his observer’s role, it’s difficult to know how to play him, and Tobey Maguire makes Nick a genial, well-meaning and fundamentally nice chap. He isn’t all that different from most of the other characters Maguire has played over the years and I wonder whether another actor might have been better able to suggest the less savoury aspects of Nick’s personality.
Maguire’s co-stars fare rather better with characters who have a little more meat to them. Carey Mulligan’s Daisy is a radiantly fragile child-woman, whose careless attitude to life masks the old sorrows and the ennui that plausibly simmer just below the surface. Her husband, the ex-sportsman Tom Buchanan, pulses with masculine presence in a forceful turn by Joel Egerton, which always teeters on the edge of potential violence. And Gatsby himself, at the suave heart of the story, is a role that Leonardo DiCaprio was made for, turning in a matinee-idol performance of calculated charm: the grown-up equivalent of the golden boy who, as Jack Dawson and Romeo, stole the hearts of most of my schoolfriends. DiCaprio convincingly suggests the frailty of Gatsby’s civilised veneer, which cracks to reveal the tragically single-minded, deluded dreamer huddling within.
In general, the film does stick quite faithfully to the book, keeping the iconic closing line and using a lot of the dialogue (if I remember correctly). There were some powerful images, such as the opening and closing shots, which simply show us the green light at the end of the dock, silently pulsing its hopeful message across the bay. On a couple of occasions, Luhrmann’s vision for a scene coincided exactly with what I’d imagined in my mind when reading the book: that wonderful scene in which we meet Daisy, for example, in a room full of billowing white gauze curtains; or the bleak expanse of wasteland around the railway tracks near Wilson’s garage, overshadowed by those ominous bespectacled eyes. But there were things I wasn’t so fond of. Personally I don’t see why Luhrmann chose to use contemporary music in some scenes – no music quite sums up the glamour and excessive of this period like the original jazz, and I don’t see any reason not to use it. The party scenes were frantic and fun – no one directs a party quite like him – but Moulin Rouge cast a very long shadow here and it felt as though, each time things kicked off, Luhrmann was wrestling to keep himself in check. Furthermore, as I mentioned in passing above, much of the darkness and richness of the original story was lost in translation.
It is an odd film – not a disaster, by any rate, but not successful either. Half an hour into it, I found myself wondering how a film about the Jazz Age by Luhrmann could be so dull. By the end it had grown on me a little, and it was certainly no longer dull, but for all its glitz and style it seemed to lack the world-weary, slightly satirical note that makes Fitzgerald’s novel so memorable. I think my next step will be to track down the 1974 film, as many people have said that’s the definitive version. Has anyone else seen the present film? What did you think?