Having neither read the original novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald, nor seen the three previous film adaptations, it was a pleasure to view Baz Luhrmann’s version of the tale with fresh eyes and an uncluttered perspective. It was a ‘new’ story.
The opening scene-setting is a wonder of filmmaking, with swooping and diving shot sequences through the ever-rising skyscrapers of New York, beautifully evoking the ascendance of the post-war industrial boom, which inspired an atmosphere of optimism and decadence, contrasted by the industrial wasteland sitting between the wealth and bustle of Manhattan and the enormous mansions of leafy-green Long Island. This period had significant wealth and class divide.
Luhrmann describes this period of overindulgence by cramming the screen with an overwhelming array of light, colour, sound and movement: an onslaught to the senses, reminiscent of his opening to Moulin Rouge. But, just when the phrenetic cinematography is making you feel sea-sick and you can take no more, the pace slows and the true love story begins.
The first act is all about setting the scene and tone for what is to come, and establishing the conscience of the piece, Nick Carraway, a failed writer, through whose eyes we see the whole story, played competently but not particularly engagingly by Toby Maguire. There are no weak performances, but when Leonardo DiCaprio finally steps onto screen as Jay Gatsby he sweeps aside all others with his confidence, charisma and talent. The rest of the cast are made to seem like mediocre bit parts. He has become the master of his craft and is among the greatest screen actors working today. He plays the perfect gentleman; well-mannered, pristinely presented, generous in character, but also mysterious and god-like (he is even referred to as “God” on more than one occasion).
As a man of considerable wealth he appears to be from a privileged background, but eventually we learn that he has built himself up from nothing as the son of dirt-poor immigrants, and has taught himself to become the most refined and respected gentleman in New York. It is an inspirational tale, but one with a warning – if something seems too good to be true then it probably is. Gatsby appears to be in absolute control of everything…. except his love for a woman. This passion has driven him to the pinnacle of success, but it also drives him to the irrational behaviour that ultimately delivers his downfall. No man is perfect, and where Gatsby falls down is his belief that having lead a life of mystery and half-truths that being honest to the one he loves will deliver the simple dream he has always wished for. Instead of course, it inspires a chaotic conclusion with events spiralling out of Gatsby’s control. Maybe he was guilty of no more than a naïve hopefulness.
The first half of the story took so long to get going that it was difficult to keep concentration. And, although the second half was more interesting, it is not enthralling enough to warrant critical acclaim. The interest in the story is much more in its cautionary tale – that everyone has secrets that will always come back to haunt them – and also what it says about the roaring twenties with its burgeoning affluence, wild parties, swinging music and bootlegging. Made all the more dramatic and poignant by the prospect of doom ahead as the Great Depression lurked just round the corner, unbeknownst to the new wave of exuberant youth.
Credit must given to Luhrmann’s skills. He has a stylistic signature to his direction, painting onto the screen as if it were a canvas, constantly playing with the colour palette provided by his set designers, costumers and cinematographer. There is a theatrical quality to his direction, but the almost continuous movement of the camera (although unsettling) takes it away from the stage and very much into world of the feature film.
The elements that stood out were the central performance by DiCaprio, a powerful follow-up to his ruthless 1860s Southern plantation owner in Django Unchained, and the clever soundtrack; a wonderful mix of 1920s music and contemporary R’n’B. If you know nothing of the Great Gatsby, then I would recommend this film, but for those who know and love the novel, I would imagine that this newest screen adaptation may fall short of the mark.