The Great Gatsby (2013)

The Great Gatsby

(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.

The Great Gatsby

Daisy (Carey Mulligan), Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Nick (Tobey Maguire)

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.

The Great Gatsby

Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Daisy (Carey Mulligan)

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?

Buy the book

The Great Gatsby

Party time at Gatsby’s mansion

9 thoughts on “The Great Gatsby (2013)

  1. Jen K says:

    Nice review – I mostly liked the film but something about it was off. It was a bit longer than it should have been, and it was hard not to think of Moulin Rouge during some scenes. I also didn't like the framing, which served as yet another reminder of Moulin Rouge. I thought the actors, especially DiCaprio and Mulligan were great, and the music worked for me – I think for a modern audience, the hip hop music will really show the excess and craziness of the time. I had to watch the Redford film in high school and it was kind of boring as far as I remember. Very stuffy and dry – I think Luhrman did a much better job of capturing the spirit of the '20s. I feel like I will need to watch it again to really determine how I feel but I was a bit disappointed with it, though I think it was better than the previous version. It's was very pretty, though.

  2. The Idle Woman says:

    Well, it might just feel more understated because he doesn't pull it off in the same way as his earlier films. Perhaps the problem is that I read the book only last year and so it's quite fresh in my mind, so I found myself being more critical than I would otherwise have been? Plus, although I really like Moulin Rouge, I'm not a huge Baz fan. When Romeo and Juliet came out, I was that annoying kid at school who kept trying to convince everyone the Zefferelli version was better. 😉

  3. The Idle Woman says:

    Hello Jen! I think you have a point that, for a first introduction to the story – whether at school or now – this might be a fun way in. But if you come to it already knowing the story, you might well feel (as you say) that something was 'off'. Not having seen the Redford version, I can't really compare. Yes, Baz's version is pretty and yes, it is fun, but I definitely felt that it missed out on some of the depth of the book.

    I didn't mention this in the post, but I get the feeling that Gatsby is very much the American equivalent of Brideshead. I suspect the Redford version has the same slow, atmospheric air as the Brideshead TV series did; while this film is perhaps the equivalent of the recent Brideshead film – more modern and more lively, but without the necessary soul. (I hasten to add that my judgement on the Brideshead film is also based on reviews and hearsay. *Even though* Ben Whishaw is in it, I don't think I could bear to watch it, as the TV series, though slow, is perfect.)

  4. Charlie says:

    I'm yet to see it but having read the book I'm reading about it as bloggers review it. This: “It's as if he set out to make, comparatively speaking, a more understated film”, I would have never expected. You've said it, about his forte – you just don't expect his films to be less than glamorous/different in some way. In that way maybe the fact of him being the director has been a negative aspect, and it's odd because the trailers and posters make it look like his work. I'm interested to see how the inclusion of Nick works here.

  5. Heloise says:

    I have not seen the Luhrmann film (and likely won't ever), but agree with Jen K that the 1974 was a pretty bland affair – which I guess might even be considered an achievement for a film starring Robert Redford. And it absolutely does not compare to the wonderful Brideshead Revisited TV series (again, I have not watched the new movie – in fact, did not even there was one until now) thinking back on which still sends a small frisson down my spine even though it's been decades since I last watched it.

  6. The Idle Woman says:

    To be fair, nothing can *actually* compare to the TV version of Brideshead. I can't even read the book now without hearing Jeremy Irons's mellifluous tones. Being a complete geek, I used to sit on the windowsill of my college room at Oxford and stare out over the spires while listening to the Brideshead theme tune. 🙂

    This is very interesting though – I had always assumed that the 1974 Gatsby was a universally-acknowledged classic. Thanks to you and Jen, Heloise, it turns out that things are not as clear-cut as I thought!

  7. Heloise says:

    As far as I know, the 1974 version is regarded almost universally as a failure; here's a link to Roger Ebert's review which I think is fairly representative:

    I never actually watched Brideshead in the original version, that having been the times before internet and Bit Torrent I was stuck with the German dub. Hmmm, wonder if there's any way to still get at it…

  8. The Idle Woman says:

    Boxset from Amazon?

    I am surprised at that news about the 1974 version. I've always heard people talk about it in an admiring way – perhaps because it was the only widely available version of the story on film? (As opposed to the difficult-to-get-hold-of 1949 version which Jean mentioned on the blog's Facebook page, which now sounds even more interesting!)

  9. Heloise says:

    Oh lol – I have to admit, it never occurred to me that the series might be availableo on DVD after all that time, and at a very affordable price, too – thank you very much for the link! There seems to be a German version too that is even cheaper but apparently has non-removable German subtitles over the original language version. Thankfully, they also have the UK version as an import, so I ordered that one. 😉 Guess my watching of the third season of Game of Thrones will have to wait for a bit now…

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