20 May 2013


In my younger and more vulnerable years, I saw a guilty pleasure film that I have been turning over in my mind ever since. Moulin Rouge is a film that I enjoy less and less every time I see it, to the point where I've definitively stopped watching it altogether, just to preserve some affection for it. Although his version of The Great Gatsby has some similarities to this film, it's his experience on a previous film, Romeo + Juliet, that should actually make him an ideal choice to adapt F. Scott Fitzgerald's seminal novel.

While the director modernises Gatsby in the way that he did for Romeo + Juliet, but his big divergence from the source material comes in the same form as the frame from Moulin Rouge. In this version, Nick Carraway is a recovering alcoholic who is encouraged to write down his traumatic story by doctors at a sanatorium. We're transported to New York at the height of the roaring 1920s, via his narration, and see how he became acquainted with Jay Gatsby, a young millionaire who has a connection to Nick's married cousin, Daisy Buchanan.

The usual spoiler policy applies here, but if any unknown plot details arise in this review, it's because we're talking about a film based on a book that's almost 90 years old. Macduff kills Macbeth, Scrooge becomes a better man, Mrs. Rochester is in the attic- let's be sensible about this. At the same time as the film is very faithful, taking whole passages of dialogue straight from the text, it's definitely worth reading the novel too, either before or right after seeing this. If you're unfamiliar with the story, the first thing you should know is that this is a lot heavier than it looks.

Granted, it's got much more of Luhrmann's style than Fitzgerald's subtext, with plenty of fabulous production design, shot in such a way where we don't really hold on anything for more than five seconds. It's still hard to argue that the film's stylised approach, with its modern, Jay Z-produced soundtrack and its turbo-charged vehicles, is off-kilter with the tone of the novel. It even works out better, because in story terms, the film remains faithful to the downward arc in which the characters find themselves entangled- the sheer excess and hedonism of the 20s could only lead to a fall, (not that Fitzgerald knew the 1929 Wall Street crash was coming at the time of writing) and so we've got to see some excessive hedonism.

Luhrmann also has a terrific cast on-side. As Gatsby, Leonardo DiCaprio is in a role where his performance could have been perversely similar to his role as Calvin Candie in Django Unchained- a boy-king who revels in his comfortable lifestyle. But DiCaprio has long since evolved into a more mature actor, and his weird combination of soft-spoken brashness suits the character down to the ground. Carey Mulligan makes a great Daisy, whispering "only to make people lean toward her" and once again doing that thing that gets me every time, of spontaneously weeping at the most unexpected moments. Nobody, but nobody, is as good as Mulligan, when it comes to portraying those bursts of repressed sadness.

Of course, anyone who's read the book knows that Nick is the real protagonist, with the addition of a mental condition allowing Luhrmann and his co-writer Craig Pearce to preserve the first-person narration in their adaptation. Tobey Maguire is perfectly suited to being central and yet invisible, as Nick should be- the scene on Nick's birthday is particularly strong because of this, but the most enjoyable aspect is in his interactions with Joel Edgerton as Daisy's husband, Tom. His brashness is not soft-spoken, but it's not showy either, making him the perfect foil to DiCaprio.

But the problem with the film on the whole is that Maguire isn't just having focus pulled away from him by the personalities of the other characters, but by just about everything else in the film too. I haven't decided if it's impressive or wasteful, that someone managed to make an effects-heavy Great Gatsby, but I can personally say that I found the overuse of CGI to be distracting. While the soundtrack and the editing style are both acceptable and unexpectedly apt on their own, the special effects don't work as consistently, and the combination of all three can become alienating.

The Great Gatsby is perhaps the most unlikely summer blockbuster of this year, or of any year in recent memory, but against my expectations, it works more often than it doesn't. Unlike the inevitable overlong summer juggernauts that will eventually supersede it in 3D screens, it doesn't outstay its welcome, and it's a well-cast, good-looking adaptation. In the face of mixed critical responses, it's tough to say that the subtext is buried by the style, because subtext isn't meant to be on the surface. Even if it does look a little squashed under the weight of Luhrmann's typically grandiose adaptation, the story's endurance holds out.

The Great Gatsby is now showing, in 2D and 3D, in cinemas nationwide.
If you've seen The Great Gatsby, why not share your comments below? Topic of the week: will any of Leonardo DiCaprio's characters ever catch a break?

I'm Mark the mad prophet, and until next time, don't watch anything I wouldn't watch.

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