Director: Baz Luhrmann Writer: Baz Luhrmann, Craig Pearce, F. Scott Fitzgerald Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tobey Maguire, Carey Mulligan Running time: 142 minutes Year: 2013
This review first appeared on Derby QUAD Blog
When Leonardo DaVinci put the final touches to the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, he probably stood back, poured himself a vino from his carafe and revelled in the pleasant ache of completion. It’s unlikely that he had to contend with some pesky runt sidling up to him muttering; “You see the way you’ve got God and Adam touching finger tips as God blesses Adam with the gift of life? Yeaaah, that’s not exactly how it happened. I mean, it was hinted at, but not explicitly stated.”
Centuries later, artists are constantly at the receiving end of disdain for daring to reappropriate previously existing material. What’s that saying? There’s nothing new under the sun. Whether or not you agree with that adage, it’s worth considering here.
Director Baz Luhrmann grapples with one of the Great American novels which has already been adapted. Four times. Wading through the critical savagery The Great Gatsby one simple detail critics cannot let go of comes up time and time again: it’s an adaptation. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel is lavishly written. A tale strung together with beatific prose. Luhrmann’s vision for those words was inevitably going to rattle cages, regardless of the methods he employed to assemble that vision.
“The Great Gatsby is a masterstroke in storytelling.”
A colourful, bawdy, larger-than-life tableaux of drinking, decadence and love, The Great Gatsby is a masterstroke in storytelling. Ultimately, that’s the goal of any mainstream film feature – the ability to tell a story (and perhaps throw in a spot of social commentary and product placement.) This story unfolds via a wraparound told by narrator Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) through which we are escorted into the ostentatious world of Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio) during the Spring of 1922. The millionaire living next door to Maguire’s penniless writer, Gatsby ignites a fire under his neighbour’s rump as the two become friends. It soon is revealed that Gatbsy once knew Carraway’s darling cousin, Daisy (Carey Mulligan) and is keen to reacquaint himself with her.
Split into two halves, Gatsby’s divisive nature is due to its excessive production and structure. It’s hard to forget this is a film from the man who brought Moulin Rouge to the screen. Luhrmann lingers on every moment of the first act hesitantly, as if a song is moments away from erupting. Twinning contemporary music with a period production design is a tactic the director successfully perpetuated throughout Rouge. Not so much now, though.
During one particular scene, Carraway is enjoying an afternoon partying in a hotel. Nothing wrong with that, he’s got a hard job after all. What empties sequences like this throughout Gatsby’s first act is the crew of characters littering the periphery of Carraway’s journey. Drinks in hand and in various states of undress, they act as nothing more than parodies of themselves. It’s like being slapped around the face with a plastic kipper and then told you stink of fish.
Gatsby’s imprudent first half stems from its inability to live up to its ambition. Luhrmann’s desire to make the most of a ceremonial production design forces the film into a style which betrays its strongest qualities. Plagued by an identity crisis midway through, the separation between the opening and its better last half is only too welcome.
“Luhrmann’s desire to make the most of a ceremonial production design forces the film into a style which betrays its strongest qualities.”
Once the song and dance end, the film propels into a strong, compelling and heartbreaking story. What we’re left with is a tender drama. Jay Gatsby, our hero from the wrong side of the tracks, longs to rekindle a period of life in which he knew true love and happiness. Beneath what one character terms the “pomp and circumstance” flashed before, the film’s underbelly flaunts a tenacity previously absent.
Maguire, thankfully out of Spidey’s mask, makes an empathetic narrator who serves the vicarious purpose of poking the audience’s noses where technically they shouldn’t be. While he doesn’t snag the grand entrance DiCaprio does (on a flaming unicycle! Just kidding, cool your jets…) he has a wail of a time reading from Fitzgerald’s novel for the voiceover.
DiCaprio, arguably the finest actor of our generation, cares about his Gatsby. His foibles, his kindness and his inimitable spirit make the biggest contribution to the film’s success. Portraying a character who is neither hero nor antagonist can sometimes present onscreen as ambivalence. DiCaprio masters Gatsby’s duality without losing the audience. You root for him. You want him to succeed. His pursuit of happiness becomes yours.
“DiCaprio’s inimitable spirit makes the biggest contribution to the film’s success.”
It’s in these moments, stripped away from the razzle dazzle and armed with lean scene descriptions and scant dialogue that Gatsby sneaks up on you. A basic two-shot sequence switching between DiCaprio and Maguire in total silence dispenses a greater understanding of character than the entire first hour. It burns brightest when it takes its time. Charging towards the climax, characters battle through crises of duplicitous actions landing several right hooks that catch you off guard.
What is most rewarding however, is the question burrowed deep into the very mettle of Gatsby; what does it really mean to love someone?
Within a two hours plus running time sits a film that’ll have you hooked. What’s a damn shame is that you have to suffer through an hour of pretense before The Great Gatsby is truly great.
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