Baz Luhrmann brings us here what must be said to be a glorious and fairly accurate reimagination and modernisation of Fitzgerald’s timeless classic about love, hope, aspiration, and inevitable disappointment. That definition is important because this movie is not an adaptation strictly speaking, not a transmutation from paper to film. No – rather it is a modern retelling, veritably affecting in its own right, stunning and emotionally gruelling.
The Great Gatsby follows Nick Caraway, who recently moved to New York, as he experiences the grand nature of life in the Big Apple. He becomes a mediator for the doomed relationship between Jay Gatsby, his lavish neighbour – a man fuelled by hope, and his cousin, Daisy Buchanan, who was previously romantically involved with Gatsby, but is now married to Tom, a cheating but wealthy and provident brute who lives across the lake.
In typically Luhrmann extravagance, the first half of the film definitely favours style over substance or mystery, but the film is made in the second half. The Great Gatsby is a story of remarkable depth and meaning. Jay Gatsby himself represents the existential power wielded by men, the power to refashion oneself to become someone greater, and his failure showing the futility of that power. It is a story of lust and hope, reaching for a dream which may seem so close but can never be grasped. It is also a critique of the careless, wealth-driven lifestyle of the rich and powerful. Without revealing major spoilers, these are the core themes explored by Fitzgerald in his landmark novel, and although Lurhmann’s rendition cannot be said to be the most accurate, it does retain these themes, and that is what is important.
The actors were all near-perfect. Carey Mulligan embodied Daisy, sweet, and in her own words a pretty little fool. Her character is more than Gatsby’s love interest, she symbolises the target of aspiration. Mulligan does fail however to portray the complete depth her character deserves, because in addition she is not just a frail and petite sycophant, but also the cause of tragedy. She is child-like, not just in the sense that she is excited at the prospect of attention, but also that she is careless with it when she gets it. These aspects of her character are breezed over. Nonetheless, her performance was moderately impressive.
Tobey Macguire as Nick Carraway, the naive spectator to the events, may be seen as possibly bland, but rather it was possibly the most consistent thing with the book; him being innocent and callow. He was however unconvincing as a broken and depressed alcoholic undergoing therapy, scenes which were not in the book but may be seen as necessary to frame the narrative in the film. Transmutating Carraway’s narration from book to film has been and will forever be an impossible issue. In the novel, we are Nick, we see what he sees and respect and trust his judgement. He is, in essence, an empty shell that we fill. A film cannot achieve this, it cannot have one of its leads be an empty vessel. Making Nick Carraway a broken alcoholic may not have been the most astute move, but it was necessary and did more good than ill to the film.
Leonardo DiCaprio on the other hand was more than flawless. He was nuanced, every aspect of him bleeding Gatsby, bleeding hope and ambition. Gatsby’s entire life is a performance designed to enthral Daisy, and DiCaprio makes this known in every movement, in every word, with his solid poise, his forced accent, and perfectly coiffed hair. And in the moments where his charade slips, where you see a man straining to the limit to get what he wants, being so near yet so far, his tension and frustration is palpable. Before seeing the film it was difficult to imagine anyone be Gatsby. After seeing the film, it is impossible.
The original score is mellow and soft, a welcome release from the riotous amalgamation of jazz and rap that makes up Jay-Z music contribution, which does help in reflecting the extravagance and decadence of New York in the 1920′s, but came very close to being headache-inducing.
One may argue that the film was overhyped. One may suggest that the film trades in Fitzgerald’s original depth and pensiveness for spectacle and decadence. Admittedly, when adapting such a renowned novel one has a duty to be consistent with it, but in my honest opinion, Luhrmann’s Great Gatsby made Fitzgerald’s novel new again, drowned us in the relatable splendour till we were just as exhausted of it as Nick was at the end, whilst maintaining the true heart of the story, of Gatsby; that die-hard ambition, that “extraordinary sense of hope” that may not be rewarded, but indisputably makes a man Great.