Picturenose is simply delighted to welcome Catherine Feore to our hallowed reviewers’ ranks, with her thoughts on Baz Luhrmann‘s take on F. Scott Fitzgerald‘s classic novel. Take it away, Ms Feore.
When I heard that Leonardo DiCaprio had signed up to play Gatsby in a new production of the famous novel I was delighted. DiCaprio is a skilled actor, with the looks and charisma to play the role; when I heard Baz Luhrmann was directing, however, my heart sank.
I adored his Romeo and Juliet (1996), it was true to the original play and, while set in a fast-moving, lurid LA with a throbbing soundtrack, it captured the reckless intensity of young love brilliantly. But sadly, this review is not about that faultless work.
I didn’t see Luhrmann’s Australia (2008) – which seems to have been universally panned – and I didn’t like Moulin Rouge (2001), which lacked any depth or interest, ending up as a fairly empty extended perfume ad, which is what it became. So when I discovered, minutes before entering the cinema, that Luhrmann was involved, I took a deep breath – I knew that it could be very good, or very, very bad.
Nick Carraway, the story’s narrator, played by Tobey Maguire, is first met not arriving on West Egg, but being treated for addiction by a rather disturbing and invasive psychiatrist. This seems to be a tortured device and an unnecessary distraction. The character of Carraway is more contemplative and calm in the book, while also very much a character in the story, he is the perfect narrator to watch the drama unfold. DiCaprio had not yet appeared on the screen, but I was already wondering what possessed him to agree to this mistake, loyalty to someone who had cast him well in a good movie previously, perhaps? A hope that Luhrmann wasn’t going to shoot it as an amphetamine-fuelled remake of The Bonfire of the Vanities (1990)? I started practising my breathing and preparing for the next onslaught – I already had an inkling of what was coming and was having flashbacks to Moulin Rouge and what seemed like endless scenes of the can-can and that incredibly annoying rendition of Lady Marmalade.
So next, we have the parties of the roaring twenties and, as we know, Luhrmann can put on a spectacle like no other, but like a drunk at a party he doesn’t know when the music’s too loud. The parties show the excess of the age but they are also meant to be resplendent with style and elegance, Gatsby is not just displaying his affluence, he wants his party to be the sort of gig where Anna Wintour is going to swing by. Other than the cover of Back to Black by André 3000, the music is pretty prosaic and I found myself longing for music from the Jazz Age. Rhapsody in Blue is used, but is wasted. In general, I am a bit of a zealot when it comes to the use of great music in films – if you are going to steal, you better do it well, compare the Rhapsody in Blue chosen by Woody Allen at the start of Manhattan (1979), which is put to magnificent affect. On the other hand, John Adams’ Short Ride in a Fast Machine is used well for a later scene as the protagonists race into the city to the Plaza Hotel.
I was worried that the film was going to continue in this vein, but Luhrmann was dragged back to relate the story and his casting was close to flawless. DiCaprio, as already mentioned, shines in delivering a convincing Gatsby, much more convincing than Robert Redford’s in Jack Clayton’s 1974 incarnation. Daisy (Carey Mulligan) plays the role well but little is made of the fact that she has a daughter, something that makes her choices more understandable and Joel Edgerton plays the role of her husband Tom Buchanan, a vile WASP jock, to perfection. Even Carraway settles into his narrator’s role. The scene in the Plaza where Gatsby tries to make Daisy confront Tom is the clincher. Gatsby wants Daisy to tell Tom that she has only loved him – it is a moment of deep pathos, the moment when we catch our breath, the moment when I realised that while this film has its flaws, there is still enough in it that is very good.
In the end, Gatsby reveals himself to Carraway, showing his real qualities, those that put the ‘great’ into Gatsby, or as the French would have it ‘Gatsby le Magnifique’ – his transformative will, optimism and in a sense, considering he’s a bootlegger, his integrity. I never studied Gatsby and never really ‘got’ why he is a hero, but I did in this film. However, as Gatsby stares out at the green light emanating from Daisy’s East Egg mansion, I thought wistfully of the beautifully subtle Le Rayon vert (The Green Ray) (1986) by Eric Rohmer – slow, subtle, touching, pretty much the opposite of a Bazza production.
Postscript, post film, I realised that the film is also available in 3D, which might explain some of its peculiarities – especially in the unrelenting and annoying first half of the movie.