The Great Gatsby may have suffered from high expectations. The trailers were everywhere; a swirl of shimmying flappers, vintage cars and the image of Leo’s beautiful face raising a glass to us. Sadly, in a twist of irony, Gatsby’s lavish – yet shallow – parties are mirrored by Lurhmann’s tendency towards superficiality in his filmmaking. An attractive, intriguing piece of cinema? Yes. F. Scott Fitzgerald? Not even slightly.
Tobey Maguire is our eyes and ears as the relatable Nick Carraway. Solid throughout, his scenes suffer slightly from his dual role as narrator and character. Largely, however, director Baz Lurhmann copes with the adaptation aspect well – the dialogue is ever loyal to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel, and those who have read the book will enjoy subtle nods to the original. Where Fitzgerald showed restraint in terms of characterisation and storytelling, however, Lurhmann does not.
The announcement that Leonardo DiCaprio would play the titular character was met with much interest – surely the enigmatic DiCaprio is perfectly cast as Nick’s mysterious neighbour. He is, unsurprisingly, one of the highlights of the film, as the eponymous Gatsby, who will do anything to be reunited with sweetheart Daisy. His relationship with Daisy, however, is plagued by a chronic lack of chemistry between the actors. At times Nick and Daisy – who are cousins – honestly seem a more likely couple. Carey Mulligan’s Daisy is a competent, if slightly predictable portrayal, possibly overshadowed by Mia Farrow’s iconic performance in the 1974 adaptation. She looks beautiful, of course, in faithful renditions of 1920’s attire. However, as their troublesome romance is basically what everything else hangs on, this is a bit of an issue. Extensive ‘air brushing’ that makes the actors’ faces look suspiciously CGI does not exactly help in achieving the ‘we’re so natural with each other’ vibe.
The modern soundtrack caused must discussion when it was first revealed. A technique used by Lurhmann in Romeo + Juliet, it doesn’t ‘clash’ as much as it could. There though, we had Radiohead; here we have will.i.am, so it’s up to individual tastes. Lana Del Rey is a particular highlight, but it does feel as though Lurhmann could have used more appropriate modern music. Electro-swing could have taken the musical aspect of the film to new heights.
The stunning visuals that Lurhmann is striving for should have been a natural product of the largely solid acting and impressive set pieces, not the CGI. In some ways, he has over-complicated the source material. The vast sweeping shots of the city and extreme zooms quickly become tiresome, and his agenda of creating something that looked pretty in 3D is not well hidden. Whilst this was often used to great effect, particularly in the more sober, emotional scenes, it was over-used, which sadly seems to be a staple of filmmaking in three dimensions. That the car racing scene was CGI seemed particularly unnecessary. This functions as a kind of analogy for the lack of subtlety that plagues the film – where Gatsby is maybe a ‘reckless’ driver, it seems unlikely that he constantly drives so fast that he would have written-off his iconic yellow car long ago.
Yet these elements were seemingly dropped for the second half of the film. This is not to say that the second half was not stylish – if anything it benefited from avoiding the contrived, over-saturated jazz of the first half. Half way through the film, the mood changes dramatically – the first half committed to style, the second to story. It’s almost as though Lurhmann finally acknowledges that the ever-energetic atmosphere of the trailer can’t be maintained for a feature length film, and diverts his attentions to character study and finally, some true tension. A highlight is the face off between Gatsby and Tom Buchanan, the latter expertly portrayed by Joel Edgerton.
A solid adaptation cast with beautiful people, the film is worth a watch, especially for fans of the novel. However, where it could have been beautiful, it is an assault on the senses. And when the most emotional scene is a display of human emotion from the ‘villain’ of the piece, you know something is wrong with the romance.
The Great Gatsby (2013), directed by Baz Lurhmann, is released in the UK by Warner Bros., Certificate 12A