I was sixteen when Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet was released in 1996 and I was absolutely dazzled—I had never seen anything quite as cool as this before. I was already a Claire Danes fan after My So Called Life, I had watched Leonardo DiCaprio grow up in Growing Pains, and ‘Verona Beach’ was a grungier, funkier version of Beverly Hills 90210. Luhrmann had created an incredibly stylish time-travelling device with which to resurrect Shakespeare for a new generation. I was slightly older but no less impressionable when Moulin Rouge came out in 2001. I sat with my mouth literally open through the opening scenes—overwhelmed by total sensory overload. A year later, in Paris, I dragged Paul through the red-light district for the purpose of photographing the famous windmill. I did enjoy Strictly Ballroom but it didn’t have quite the same impact on me and I have to confess I still haven’t seen Australia. To this day, though, Romeo and Juliet and Moulin Rouge rate in my top-ten favourite movies. So I was rather excited to hear that Baz Luhrmann was doing Gatsby and I re-read the book a year ago in preparation.
It was beautiful: an opulent visual feast—I would expect nothing less from Luhrmann. The twenties aesthetic is perfectly rendered in the typography of the titles, the costumes and the sets. It is probably unfair to say that I was less overwhelmed by Gatsby than I was by Romeo and Juliet and Moulin Rouge—film-making technology has advanced so much in the last decade or so that it must be increasing difficult to surprise or impress an audience. Luhrmann was working with an additional element this time though, 3D, and he made good use of it but sometimes the 3D was a little distracting and I felt that it may not have actually been necessary.
The casting was very well done. Leonardo DiCaprio’s awkwardly contrived accent and painful idealism were well-suited to Gatsby. Carey Mulligan was lovely as the beautiful, self-absorbed Daisy, attempting to be the heroine of her own life but not quite able to live up to Gatsby’s idealised version of herself. Tobey Maguire was convincing as indecisive Nick Carraway—the perpetual observer, and Joel Edgerton did a very good Tom Buchanan. They were all pretty close to how I had always pictured them.
The music was a little disappointing. The twenties had such great music that there was scope for an amazing soundtrack, but Gatsby’s parties had a twenty-first century sound that wasn’t particularly exciting. The mixing of eras and stylised anachronisms that were thrilling and revolutionary in Romeo and Juliet felt a little contrived in this soundtrack.
The film has been criticised for losing of lot of the subtlety of the original and this is a fair assessment. The TRAGEDY is rather hammered home and all of the intricacies of plot and nuance are spelled out just to make sure we didn’t miss any of the CRUEL IRONY of this story. There were some sequences that were laughably over-the-top—the moment when Gatsby is revealed for the first time for example. Nick Carraway has spent the entire party searching for his elusive host; he mutters something to a passing stranger who spins around dramatically to reveal a beatifically smiling DiCaprio who announces grandly, “I am Gatsby!” to a simultaneous climax of fireworks. We did giggle—it was a moment worthy of Willy Wonka. But I can’t imagine subtlety was ever the intention of this film—the intention was to create a lavish, stylish, flashy, theatrical spectacle. Luhrmann is the King of dazzling melodrama and the film should be appreciated for what it is.
The script is pretty faithful to the original plot as far as I can remember. There is one significant element added as a framing device. Nick Carraway is in some kind of mental hospital—he has become a depressed, anxious alcoholic. His doctor encourages him to write as a way to achieve peace and closure. It is not elegant but it works and it does allow the manner in which the story is told—the words themselves—to become part of the narrative. What I really appreciated about this movie, and didn’t expect, is that it is a tribute, not just to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s story, but to his actual words. This is where the use of 3D technology is most stunning and affecting—when the words of Fitzgerald’s original come to life and float in the midst of the cinematic action. (For a graphic designer the typographic visuals were particularly satisfying.) The closing sequence, superimposed by Fitzgerald’s transcendent final line, is intensely moving:
And so we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
Although comparisons to the original are inevitable, I believe that each new interpretation of a story should be judged on its own merit and can only extend the reach and influence of the original. (Could a film ever be a true reflection of a book anyway?) Baz Luhrmann’s Great Gatsby is a visually-stunning movie with an emotionally engaging narrative and it has already, undoubtedly, renewed interest in the book—as a result perhaps a new generation will discover the subtlety and nuance, the lyrical prose and the tightly-plotted narrative of Fitzgerald’s Gatsby.