It is always fun when you can deem going to the cinema as a form of revision. Next week I’ll embark upon pretending to know things about 20th Century North American Literature, and hopefully the questions will allow me to discuss F. Scott Fitzgerald’s masterpiece; The Greats Gatsby. Scott’s classic work involving the delirium of the 1920’s Jazz Age and the deconstruction of the American dream has been brought to the big-screen a couple of times before, most famously in the guise of a Francis-Ford Coppola scripted adaptation starring Robert Redford as the titular Gatsby. While certainly aptly performed, the film lost much of the novel’s nuances and subtleties. When it was announced that Baz Moulin Rouge Luhrmann was to direct a new adaptation, it was safe to assume the resulting product which be the same case; lots of style leading to the imagery lsoing somewhat of its potency by simply being take too literally. But, with Luhrmann at the helm, I was certainly was looking forward to seeing how the imagery would be depicted in his unique visual flair, as he is a director very capable of beautiful imagery. Employing a similar technique that the director applied to Moulin Rouge, Luhrmann’s period movie features a modern hip-hop soundtrack, amplifying the resonating nature of the themes of the novel. But, would his style be too much for the material, as it has proven to be in the past?
Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) a young War Veteran who has somewhat lost sight of where he is going in life, moves to New York to become a stock broker, simply because that is what everyone is doing. As he re-tells his tale, we follow the young would-be writer during his experiences in the first feverish summer he spent in the Big Apple, living on the West Egg, Long Island. There he lives next door to the mysterious and illusive Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio), who repeatedly throws large extravagant parties, populated by the who’s who of the young New York socialites. Carraway soon finds himself in a rare position; he receives an invitation to one of Gatsby’s party’s, something no one has ever received. Upon meeting the man himself, Nick becomes hopelessly intrigued by the effortlessly charming gentleman. He soon discovers the reason behind Gatsby’s extravagant lifestyle; it has all been in the hope of gaining the attention of one Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan). Gatsby and Daisy fell in love five years ago, but have since been separated by War and social boundaries, leading to Daisy falling into a marriage with the wealthy, respectable but brutish Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgarton). Striking up a friendship with Nick, Gatsby uses his new friend to get close to Daisy in the hope of fulfilling his perfect fantasy. But soon, as truths are revealed, Gatsby’s facade, and entire world, begin to crumble all around him.
The Great Gatsby is the great American tragedy; showing the American dream to be an entity fueled by optimism but lacking any grounding in the real world. Carraway’s narration is wonderful in Fitzgerald’s prose, in its ‘within and without’ nature. Here though, something has most definitely been lost in the translation. The proceedings do not start well, by any means. The film is given the framework of Carraway re-accounting his tale to a Doctor at a Sanatorium. It is a rather lazy form of narrative framework and is only set up to allow the for the incredibly cliched ‘revelation’ that Nick has written the novel. Not only that, Luhrmann opens in the film in stylistic over-drive. The colour palette is polarizing, the camera-work is dizzying, nigh on incomprehensible with awful editing to match. It is far too over whelming and too driven by obvious over-use of CGI, amounting in an exhausting first act that is embarrassing and leaves a bitterly sweet taste in the mouth.
Thankfully though, the film soon finds its footing, and this is largely thanks to the presence of one man; DiCaprio. Once he enters the scene (in a sequence that is just on the right side of OTT) he carries the picture with ease, taking over from the awkward Maguire, who also becomes much more comfortable in the role within the company of DiCaprio. His Gatsby exudes charm, but is tormented by a deep inner darkness which boils to the surface on occasion. His performance paints the portrait of a man who is entirely convinced that his destiny should unfold in the fashion he has imagined for himself. and he finds it incredibly hard to accept when the circumstances appear to stop this from happening. Mulligan’s portrayal is easily as affecting; she is positively stunning in both performance and appearance, portraying the most perfect incarnation of Daisy that a fan of the material can possibly hope to imagine. Edgarton impresses as well in the commanding role of Tom Buchanan, intimidating yet carefully measured and much smarter than he initially appears.
Luhrmann’s style certainly works to both benefit and discredit the film as a whole. He is capable of producing sumptuous imagery, but he relies far too much on the capabilities of green-screen rather than on the practicalities of set design. I understand the over-use of effects in terms of emphasizing Gatsby’s over-abundance in commodities and the such, but it is ultimately too over-whelming and distracting to the story. The soundtrack certainly works for the most part, but is perhaps not as radical as I would have hoped (the best use of track resides with Lana Del Ray’s ‘Young and Beautiful’). Special mention must be given to Craig Armstrong’s orchestral score, which is at times left battling with Jay-Z’s composition, but ultimately wins out in terms of which music I found more memorable and important to the fundamental experience of the film.
The nuances of the novel are once again diminished in the transition from page-to-screen, somewhat as a result of making a great deal of the imagery more accessible, and in some cases quite patronizingly so, for film audiences who may not be quite so well-read as others. The Green Light most certainly bashes you over the head numerous times. Yes, we get it Baz; SYMBOLISM. But Luhrmann does know, occasionally, when to reign in his visual flair and allow the actor’s to wrestle with Fitzgerald’s prose. The confrontation between the major characters in the Plaza Hotel Suite. The hugely talented cast carry this scene particularly well and it is easily the most impressive scene; ironically the scene with the least visual grandeur. It proves that the style is at its best subdued and that the film is at its best when allowing for Fitzgerald’s prose to be carried by the performances of its cast; namely DiCaprio, Mulligan and Edgarton.
The compromises made with the novel may anger some purists of the text, but aside from the awful framing device, I found the film to be a well measured adaptation that preserves the grand themes of the novel, if once again, losing some of the delicacy employed by Fitzgerald. The film could have been a train-wreck, but what we have is the best Gatsby adaptation thus far, and perhaps are ever likely to get. It is, like its hero, far from perfect when you scratch beneath the glossy surface, but it entertains and manages to maintain a steady pace, despite a testing running time. The Great Gatsby will not be remembered as a classic literary adaptation, it will never gain that respect, nor does it deserve it, but it clearly is thoroughly respectful of its ancestry and will no doubt introduce a new generation to the world of Fitzgerald’s prose. And what’s the harm in that, Old Sport?