To go into Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby expecting the definitive adaptation of F Scott Fitzgerald’s iconic American novel, is to set yourself up for a fall, a tumble short of your dreams, to paraphrase a line from the book itself. And that’s not because it is a bad adaptation, per se, but because there simply never will be a definitive Great Gatsby film. It’s far too complex and brilliant a story for that. It’s also, like all novels, open to interpretation, and different people see different things in it.
Gatsby is a story told through the eyes of a young man named Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire), cousin of the glamorous, beautiful and filthy rich Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan). After visiting her and her husband, Tom (Joel Edgerton) as well as the stylish sportswoman Jordan Baker (Elizabeth Debicki), Nick finds himself invited to one of the legendary parties of his mysterious neighbour, Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio). Increasingly fascinated by his wealthy, enigmatic new friend, Nick uncovers, and is drafted in to help rekindle, a lost love affair between Daisy and Gatsby, one which was over before it really had the chance to get started. Whilst Daisy has been married to a wealthy but adulterous husband who dashes off with mechanic’s wife Myrtle Wilson (Isla Fisher) in semi-secret every five minutes, Gatsby has been yearning for her, building up an empire just to impress her, to make her believe he has grown beyond his initially limited means and can now be a worthy suitor for her. But has he built his hopes on solid ground?
With gorgeous, sensuous cinematography and a level of pacing perfectly matched to the original texts’ novella status, Lurhmann’s adaptation has a beautifully dreamlike feel to it. Despite being so camp and outlandish it remains remarkably true to the novel, giving just the right amount of focus to each subplot, and adding in only the framework of Nick’s visits to a psychiatrist- an addition which actually works rather well. The hip hop soundtrack so many condemned only adds to the trance like state the film instils, and even in the apparently archaic 2D in which I watched it the party scenes were so convincingly dizzying as to make you feel drunk. The novel’s key set pieces are served justice too, resonating long after the camera has moved on. The first meeting of Nick with Daisy and Jordan is particularly well carried off, as is The Valley of Ashes and the image of Gatsby standing on the edge of his pier, reaching out for the green light which means so much both to the plot of the novel and American Literature as a whole. I could go on, but I shall, with some difficulty, restrain myself.
The casting is equally well judged, with Tobey Maguire presenting a convincing portrayal of Nick the unreliable narrator, by definition an infamously difficult character to pin down. Isla Fisher sparkles as Myrtle the temptress. All brash colours and hammed up accent, she is every bit the contrast to Carey Mulligan’s floaty Daisy. Mulligan’s performance is in equal parts striking and understated, as she seems to revel in both the selfish nature of her character as well as feelings of vulnerability and entrapment. We feel everything we’re supposed to feel about Daisy, at the points were supposed to feel it in her portrayal’s capable hands. Joel Edgerton gives a surprisingly captivating performance as the unsympathetic Tom, capturing both the insecurities of the character as well as his all-consuming arrogance. Elizabeth Debicki is also suitably slinky as the tricksy Jordan Baker, looking every inch the jazz kitten and giving off just the right sense of aloof detachment.
No consideration of this adaptation, this film and indeed this novel would be complete, however, without a proper look at its principal character, and in fact I’m ashamed I’ve left it until this point in my review. Tragic, hopeful, totally ridiculous and yet seductively mysterious, Jay Gatsby is the glue holding it all together. Fortunate, then, that DiCaprio is made of such strong stuff- because he really is outstanding. He brings a softness to the role missing from Robert Redford’s version, capturing the humour in some of his character’s actions, as well as heightening the tragedy- no mean feat. He brings Gatsby’s “extraordinary gift for hope” right up to the surface, and is incredibly likeable whilst he’s at it. He also looks 100% the part. In fact, when he utters the immortal words “I’m Jay Gatsby”, we cannot help but answer “yes, you are”.
With the exception of its rushed and inaccurate treatment of a certain scene I won’t mention for spoiler reasons , this beautiful, sensuous film really hammers home the tragedy of Gatsby’s story, and introduces a whole new level of understanding, via his story’s effect on Nick. All great adaptations should achieve this in one way or another, and Baz Luhrmann’s achieves it in several. Not only that, but it gives us Leonardo DiCaprio in a role he was most probably always supposed to play.
We may not have found our definitive The Great Gatsby, but, thanks to Luhrmann, we’ve found our definitive James Gatz.
**** & 1/2