Starring : Leonardo DiCaprio, Isla Fisher, Carey Mulligan, Jason Clarke, Joel Edgerton, Tobey Maguire, Elizabeth Debicki
Release Date : 16 May 2013
I am very nervous about reviewing a huge movie such as this. Based on the classic novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald, who is widely regarded as one of the greatest American writers of the 20th century, The Great Gatsby kicked off the Cannes Film Festival earlier this week. (And as David Gritten of The Telegraph points out, there’s a nice symmetry there: “In the 1920s, Fitzgerald, his wife Zelda and their affluent, hedonistic friends established the French Riviera as a smart-set destination”.)
The Great Gatsby is not just any movie. Filmmakers have been trying to get it right for the last 90 years – there were movies made in 1926, 1949, 1974, 2000 – and thus I count Baz Luhrmann as the fifth director attempting to find that Midas touch (the Morgan and Maecenas touch would do, too).
What has made Gatsby so endlessly fascinating to so many generations of readers? Was it Fitzgerald’s bold, insightful commentary of the 1920s American nouveau riche (his own lavish lifestyle as a New York celebrity afforded him a bird’s-eye view, after all)? Was it the wild and vibrant Jazz Age that gave the novel such a splendid backdrop and made it so wondrously captivating? Or was it the heart-rending story of unrequited love at the core of the book that made everyone empathise with it?
The novel – slim though it be – is packed with imagery and metaphor (I am racing through an RM8.50 copy I picked up at Borders for a quick recap, and I see lines like “inside, the crimson red room bloomed with light” and can just imagine how Luhrmann’s eyes must have lit up at the prospect of bringing such words to life).
There is no doubt that Luhrmann has crafted a beautiful film. One expects that of him. The colours are rich, the costumery gorgeous (with Brooks Brothers and Prada on the payroll we would expect nothing less), special effects dazzling (and in 3D to boot), the music is heady, and the actors beautiful. In fact, the whole gin gang – comprising Leonardo DiCaprio (Jay Gatsby), Tobey Maguire (Nick Carraway), Carey Mulligan and Joel Edgerton (Daisy and Tom Buchanan), Isla Fisher and Jason Clarke (Myrtle and George Wilson), Elizabeth Debicki (Jordan Baker), and Bollywood legend Amitabh Bachchan (Meyer Wolfsheim) – is so good-looking.
The story is told by Nick (very much in the vein of Ewan McGregor’s penniless writer of Moulin Rouge), who comes to live in the (fictional town) of West Egg on Long Island. He lives next door to the billionaire Gatsby, and inadvertently becomes a trusted friend. The story is one of love – Gatsby is passionately in love with Daisy who is married to the philandering, hulking Tom, who in turn is having an affair with Myrtle.
As Nick bears witness, within and without (I just love that he is able to keep that perspective), he is eventually consumed by the tale and ends up at the Perkins Sanitarium, from where he pens his story, which then unfolds before the viewer.
Inasmuch as The Great Gatsby is a story of love, it is also about money – old money (represented by the inherited wealth of Daisy and Tom), and new money (the shady sort that belongs to the likes of Gatsby and Wolfsheim). And if you’ve studied the novel in school or college, you’ll probably know all about how Gatsby’s dream of being with Daisy is corrupted by money, and how this is reflective of the fall of the American dream which turns out to be nothing more than the pursuit of wealth. The red, green and gold imagery throughout the book reminds one of this.
As far as Luhrmann’s movie goes, I think he’s crafted an exquisite little film (well, not so little seeing that it spans a good two hours and 20 minutes). Along with Catherine Martin (not just costume designer but designer for the whole movie and also Mrs Luhrmann, by the way) he has breathed joyous life into some scenes which I found thoroughly enjoyable.
The scene when Nick first visits Daisy and Tom at their colonial mansion, with the curtains blowing through the room like pale flags (Fitzgerald’s description, not mine) is divine, and true to the book. On the other hand, when Daisy comes over to tea at Nick’s, and Gatsby adorns his tiny $80-a-month abode with an abundance of white flowers, this may just be Luhrmann’s wild imagination playing itself out. I liked it, nonetheless.
Luhrmann, a hopeless romantic I believe (a man after my own heart), always knows just when to tug at those heartstrings and just when to get your blood boiling. For example, when you simply want to slap that fool of a girl Daisy (when you realise, at the same time she does, with whom her allegiance lies).
While the acting is noteworthy all round, I am not sure if Luhrmann was able to flesh out the characters of the novel as well as Fitzgerald had envisioned them.
I loved DiCaprio here (although I must admit his performance in Django Unchained lingered much longer in my mind). At points I felt I was watching Moulin Rouge all over again – when Nick is click-clacking away at his typewriter and the words and letters appear to find their way onto the screen; when the flappers dance all night at their bacchanalian parties; and every panoramic rooftop view.
And while I liked the movie, I didn’t think it was as good as Luhrmann’s Red Curtain Trilogy (Strictly Ballroom, Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge), which I am happy to watch over and over and over again.
One of the things that I was disappointed in was the music. I didn’t quite love the fact that the director chose to contemporise jazz with today’s hip hop – the track listing makes for a strange read indeed, featuring the likes of Jay Z, Bryan Ferry, Florence + The Machine, Lana Del Rey, London band The xx, Gotye, Nero, Jack White, Beyonce and Andre 3000.
I have grown to love the music in Strictly Ballroom and as for Moulin Rouge, I can sing the songs in my sleep. I was really looking forward to see how Luhrmann would bring the Jazz Age to aural life, and I was a little disappointed to say the least. But that’s just my opinion, old sport. The rest of the world will probably love it.