|Leonardo diCaprio as Gatsby|
(source: New York Times)
“I was both within and without”. These are the words that define Nick Carraway as narrator of Fitzgerald’s classic American novel – and they apply perfectly to our critique. We watched the film together: one of us intimately familiar with the novel having studied it for AS English Literature, and the other having never touched it – yet holding Baz Luhrmann in the highest regard in terms of directing and producing Hollywood films.There were a few things we agreed on: the excellent casting, the outrageously extravagant settings and the beautiful costumes being some of them. The sound track, produced by Jay Z, features the likes of Beyonce, Lana Del Rey and Nero – completely incongruous but the perfect way to marry the partying culture of today’s youth with the vintage decadence of the 20s. Stylistically and aesthetically wonderful. Maddy, who didn’t know the storyline or characters in detail, was like blank slate on which Luhrmann could paint a picture with all these fantastic ingredients. But, in her opinion, he failed to deliver on some crucial aspects. It was as if he had thought that, as The Great Gatsby is such an iconic novel, there was no need to put much effort into unravelling the story. Unlike Fay, she could not bring her knowledge of the characters to the film, and as a result they were not sufficiently developed for her. It was difficult to actually care about them.
We both ultimately felt sympathy for Gatsby himself, but this is extremely likely to be down to the clever casting of Leonardo DiCaprio - the Dreamboat in a dinner jacket. Carey Mulligan is, unfortunately, just a pretty face. She is entirely superficial – but, as Fay would add, such is her presentation in the book. She is the ‘golden girl’ with no real substance. Nonetheless, she is overshadowed by the ethereal, yet dominating, presence of Jordan Baker (Elizabeth Debicki), who should arguably play a lesser role.Fay had some other issues with Luhrmann’s style – but this is personal and there are many (Maddy) that adore it. She thought that Luhrmann’s excessive cuts during the early parts of the film fractured the dialogue, and made for rather tense viewing. Yet the ‘Red Curtain’ style of film is Luhrmann’s trademark, and was hugely successful in his initial ‘Red Curtain Trilogy’. He transformed Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, and he delighted us with Strictly Ballroom and Moulin Rouge. It also works for The Great Gatsby, to an extent. The form is self-consciously art, not at all naturalistic, and it befits the portrayal of the excess and carelessness of the time. Yet, in being self-consciously art, it is rather too conscious of being based on one of the most famous novels of all time.
Luhrmann has obviously studied the novel and understood its themes and symbolism – but Fay thought these were presented without any subtlety. For example, there are far too many shots of a hand reaching out to a green light, attempting to portray Gatsby’s capacity for hope in a rather basic and simplistic way. The words of the novel are related almost precisely in Nick’s voice over – and towards the end they are even written up on the screen. Lurhmann literally allows the book to do the talking. It is as if he is in awe of Fitzgerald’s novel, and the film works as a tribute to it – as a compliment to its words and its success – rather than being an original interpretation. If there can be such a distinction, it is a film about the novel rather than a film of the novel.
During the long and delayed approach of the film, there was abundant speculation. Fay even wrote an article on the topic. Would the film live up to the book? Would it be a disappointment – an embarrassment? With any film adaptation of classic literature, there will be comparison and it will often be to the detriment of the film. Arguably, the best hope of a director is to make the audience forget about the book – to simply sweep them away into the world they are creating. Luhrmann did just the opposite. Ultimately, we both felt that the film was never as immediate as the book it represents.