17 May 2013

Movie Review: The Great Gatsby (2013)


The Great Gatsby
2013, 143mins, 12
Director: Baz Luhrmann
Writer (s): F. Scott Fitzgerald (novel), Baz Luhrmann, Craig Pearce
Cast includes: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tobey Maguire, Carey Mulligan, Isla Fisher, Joel Edgerton, Jason Clarke
UK Release Date: 16th May 2013

Published the guts of a century ago in 1925, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby” has in the decades since been upheld as the very pinnacle of modern American literature. Operating as a roaring piece of escapism, an involving drama and pointed critique on the dangers of hedonism, “The Great Gatsby” is a marvellous work of fiction, thoroughly deserving of its high standing in the 20th century cultural pantheon. Several filmed adaptations have been attempted since the 1920s (most notably the sedate 1974 version penned by Francis Ford Coppola), but none have managed to fully compress all of Fitzgerald’s motifs and delicate stylistic touches into a unified cinematic product. Enter Baz Luhrmann. The flamboyant Australian may have initially seemed like an odd fit for Fitzgerald’s prose, but the film-maker uses his lust for excess to tremendous effect in “The Great Gatsby”. A sumptuous banquet of audio and visual treats, the adaptation delivers an incredibly immersive experience, thanks in no small part to strong casting and an intelligent preservation of the text’s key motifs.

New York 1922. With Wall Street booming the City has been enveloped by a mist of decadence and vulgar greed; loose morals, overflowing cocktail glasses and raucous parties all major societal cruxes. Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) is an aspiring writer and Bond salesman, renting a small house in the village of West Egg to pursue his modest career ambitions. Across the bay in the more illustrious East Egg lives Nick’s cousin Daisy (Carey Mulligan) and her arrogant spouse Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton), a wealthy pair ill at ease due to Tom’s unfaithful behaviour with working class mistress Myrtle Wilson (Isla Fisher). Nick finds their way of life curious, but is even more intrigued by his mysterious neighbour Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio), an elusive bachelor famed for the enormous parties he throws on a weekly basis. When an invite arrives for one of Gatsby’s bashes, Nick finds himself befriending the charming businessman, discovering a well-mannered and warm individual. However Gatsby has an ulterior motive; Nick offering him access to a beloved figure from his past, the much coveted and now unhappily married Daisy.

It is hard to imagine a director more tonally suited to Fitzgerald’s text than Luhrmann. Thanks to pictures like “Romeo + Juliet” and “Moulin Rouge!” Luhrmann has deservedly cultivated a reputation for extraordinarily lavish bouts of cinematic abundance, something he more than upholds with “The Great Gatsby”. The director is never more at home than when visualizing Gatsby’s parties in all their pomp and splendour, envisaging a glittery hell, overrun by garish dancers, cheap liquor and contemporary pop music melted organically into the fabric of 1920s America. Aesthetically the picture is an utter joy, a unique gem that combines the detailed lyricism of author with the high energy of an auteur in creative paradise. Every location clicks, whether it be Myrtle and Tom’s seedy apartment hideaway or the vacuous, clinical beauty of the Buchanan residence, Luhrmann nails it with gusto and appropriate atmospheric verve. It helps that the cinematography is phenomenally polished and picturesque, helping to contrast the differences between wealth and poverty (“The Valley of Ashes” is hauntingly realized here) and pinpoint the fascinations with hollow depravity which marred the period.

The cast are all comfortable in their parts. Maguire is more humane than usual, providing emotive narration and a turn that encapsulates Nick’s fall from naivety. Mulligan is delicate and visually well suited to the role of Daisy, communicating the character’s fragile and flighty grasp of the world with saddening sympathy, floating around the picture like a lost soul desperately seeking fulfilment. Those worried that Mulligan may be too strong a presence to effectively essay the airy and enfeebled worldview of Daisy needn’t have shown such concern, the actress reeks of innocence, ill-conviction and ravishing discontent. Edgerton and Fisher are left to chew the scenery with their respective contributions, but it’s not much of a hindrance, both performers adding a little added vampy pizzazz to Luhrmann’s already bubbling broth.  

Then there’s DiCaprio as Gatsby, and what a terrific turn it is. The actor will no doubt continue his long history of Academy snubs with his sterling work here, but that’s no matter, he’s the heart and soul of this thriving adaptation. The film lights up when he finally arrives, the actor using his effortless charisma to seduce viewers before plastering on the anxieties and character nuances with skilful and refined aplomb. Luhrmann and DiCaprio combine to peel back Gatsby’s layers with intimacy and care, crafting a figure of extreme interest. His interactions with Nick and Daisy are handled with affecting emotional grace, and his nervous, even at times infuriated confrontations with Tom hit an electrifying tempo. DiCaprio’s performance is extraordinary; capable and mature, with an unhesitant comprehension of the source.

The themes and imagery of Fitzgerald’s writing are carefully mimicked and worked into the narrative smoothly; I can’t imagine purists will find much to complain about within the central plotting. Gatsby’s conflicts are dealt with in a way that would likely leave Fitzgerald tickled, Luhrmann’s fizzy touch only highlighting the fruitless futility of Gatsby’s quest for shallow perfection. The way that the film-makers have chosen to bookend the piece is worrisome, electing for a tired and clich├ęd voiceover that stems from an elongated therapy session. It’s a misstep for sure, and suggests that even Luhrmann’s imagination has boundaries, but he deals with the meat of the story so triumphantly I’m willing to overlook this laughable miscalculation.

The screenplay soars and the characters engage just as I’d hoped, connecting fully for the lengthy 143 minute runtime. It’s a scintillating barrage of blockbusting luxury, honouring the source with reverence, aesthetic authenticity and pulsing humanity, delivering both a drama and commentary of some considerable worth. I acknowledge it’s not for everyone, but in my eyes this Gatsby is truly great.

A Review by Daniel Kelly, 2013


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