Polarising opinion even before the release of its trailer, Baz Luhrmann’s take on the quintessential American novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald has been subjected to fierce criticism and praise in equal measure; but just like the titular character, both viewpoints are far too exaggerated to form a realistic picture. Is The Great Gatsby an unmitigated disaster or an Oscar-worthy triumph? The answer is neither.
Set in the heyday of the Jazz Age, the story follows narrator Nick Carraway as he is thrust into the life of the enigmatic Jay Gatsby, whose questionable acquirement of wealth and prosperity is purely a device to win back a lost love, Daisy Buchanan. The Great Gatsby is as melodramatic and overblown as you would expect from the director of Moulin Rouge! but the opening half an hour is particularly disorientating. Cinematography verging on the cartoonish leaves you with a sense of motion sickness and the slight suspicion that the cameramen were forced to take LSD alongside their morning cereal.
Once the camera acrobatics settle down the audience are treated to an entertaining middle section; the ‘star-crossed lovers’ angle between Gatsby and Daisy is enjoyably constructed but Luhrmann misunderstands the tragedy of their story. They are kept apart, not by wealth or by Daisy’s husband, but by Gatsby’s blinding idealism, which Daisy will always fail to measure up to.
Whilst the screenplay does take certain liberties with the source material (most notably the clichéd and misjudged narrative framework that presents Nick as an alcoholic) Luhrmann’s attempts to stay loyal to the original text are admirable, although the reliance upon Fitzgerald’s prose on the screen backfires as a lazy storytelling technique.
Arguably, the film fails because Luhrmann ignores the valuable aspects of the novel: Fitzgerald’s complex consideration of the American Dream is bypassed completely and the explorations into Gatsby’s true identity are only skin-deep. That said, nothing can take away from Leonardo DiCaprio’s fine performance; the film’s most triumphant moment comes when we first meet his Gatsby, an entrance heralded by fireworks and a rousing rendition of Gershwin’s ‘Rhapsody in Blue’.
Aside from DiCaprio, charisma-bypass Tobey Maguire is suitably out of his depth to play the perpetually bewildered outsider, Nick, and the roles of Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton) and Jordan Baker (Elizabeth Debicki) are also well cast.
Carey Mulligan provides a fresh take on Daisy, a character who is often reduced to a cruel villain. Mulligan is a blank, wilting flower, forced to embody the “beautiful little fool” in a world where she is just another object for men to obtain.
The movie is unsurprisingly visually spectacular. Luhrmann is truly in his element orchestrating the flamboyant parties and our awe matches Nick’s as the screen practically drips with decadence. But there is not a sufficient sense of the impending hangover and the film’s ostentatious direction throughout only serves to distract the audience from the shallowness of the piece.
Compared to previous adaptations of the novel – all of which have been ineffective for a variety of reasons – this latest venture is undoubtedly the most enjoyable. The film is a faithful literary adaptation but the nuanced beauty of the novel lies below the surface and ultimately Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby has the subtlety of a sledgehammer to the face and all the depth of a shot glass. A perfect cinematic adaptation of Fitzgerald’s work may be, just like Gatsby’s green light, unattainable.