You can imagine that a literary adaptation set in the self-indulgent Roaring Twenties about a fateful love story that’s given the Baz Luhrmann touch would be as extravagant as ever. Think Moulin Rouge. Indeed the flamboyant director does not hold back with his version of The Great Gatsby and even tries to shoehorn in a modern-day urban music style from the likes of rappers Jay-Z and Kanye West into the equation. The result is a decadent, burlesque-style, 3D theatre piece with a pounding soundtrack and bursting with colour, but the emotive part of the novel is only saved by a mesmerising turn from its star, Leonardo DiCaprio as the enigmatic Gatsby.
Would-be writer Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) arrives in New York in the spring of 1922 to follow his dream in a world of ‘anything goes’, the Roaring Twenties, where moonshine bars and loose morals prosper. Living next door on Long Island is a mysterious, party-throwing multi-millionaire called Jay Gatsby (DiCaprio ) that nobody ever sees but all attend his glitzy, wild parties every night. One day, Carraway receives an invitation to attend and his absorbed into this colourful world. However, Gatsby has a motive: to woo back a long lost love that is Carraway’s cousin, Daisy (Carey Mulligan), who is unhappily married to her philandering, wealthy husband, Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton). Carraway bears witness to this tragic love triangle and pens a tale of impossible love.
Like it or not, but such a tale is made for a Luhrmann touch, and what the director simply does is bring it to 21st Century consciousness for a broader cinematic audience – hence the music overhaul which feeds into the hedonistic style of the time, but also sits uncomfortably with it too, especially as there is a distinct lack of jazz that you come to expect. Having a lone trumpet player tickle the brass over the Big Apple skyline just doesn’t satisfy either. Still, the soulful sound of Jay-Z’s work does suit nicely in hindsight.
As for the visual spectacle, it’s Luhrmann all over: colour, glitter, soaring movements, an almost cartoonish urgency to it – especially as the Gatsby motor ploughs through the roads and dirt tracks like something alive and out of Roger Rabbit film. Luhrmann’s sumptuous theatrical world, shot as a whirlwind experience, mirrors the great love affair it illustrates. The director does turn things down several notches at times, using his trademark, ethereal quality of billowing curtains to make Daisy’s glamorous entrance to the screen – one of the most memorable shots of the film. The dark sense of the original novel from F. Scott Fitzgerald that suggests the seedier side of the fallout of the decadence is done away with on the surface, and only really gets released to highlight a sinister moment. Fans of the literary work will not find too much comparison but may be appeased by the magical charm exuded from DiCaprio.
The actor is dazzling in the role, balancing a swell of emotions at any single moment and a dark side to his nature that only comes to light in panto-style glances from his turret tower or when he loses his rag at Buchanan’s goading. DiCaprio breathes new fire into the character and charms the lot of us, as is necessary to feel his lonely, ill-advised plight and radiant sense of hope. It could be argued that Maguire’s is an uneventful performance, but his observational role merely allows DiCaprio as Gatsby to reflect and document the others actions in this torrid love story. It’s unfair to say that Maguire does little in this, though he does come across as less punchy than we would have liked such an important character to be at times.
Edgerton is brilliantly cast as the cad opposite Mulligan’s often insipid Daisy, a pathetic creature at times, rather than an emotionally torn heroine who Luhrmann’s camera seems to love but is allowed little else than to look alluring in an asexual way. Still, Mulligan’s casting is more apt than what was being considered – the too spiky Keira Knightley and too sultry Scarlett Johansson.
Sadly, Isla Fisher comes off the worst as the tragic Myrtle, barely making her mark before character’s demise. Fisher does kooky and energetic like no other actress, but her wings (and scenes) are clipped in a disappointing fashion, and even her demise is little more than momentary madness on her part to enhance the lavish spectacle of Gatsby’s gleaming yellow motor in slow-mo murderous fashion. In fact, Luhrmann’s production design often swallows up the characters in the story so that the human element fights for recognition. That said the costume design is magnificent as are some of the 3D effects.
Luhrmann is not trying to recreate the themes of the novel about great social change, however he does dip his hat to them, and certainly portrays the dizzy highs and crashing lows of the American Dream while we are hypnotised by another baby-blued-eyed performance from DiCaprio in a role that was made for him.
By Lisa Giles-Keddie