Film review: The Great Gatsby

Carey Mulligan and Leonardo DiCaprio in The Great Gatsby. Picture: Warner Bros
Carey Mulligan and Leonardo DiCaprio in The Great Gatsby. Picture: Warner Bros
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COMPOSED like a fashion shoot, Baz Luhrmann’s Gatsby is so full of spectacle that it risks missing the point of Fitzgerald’s story.

The Great Gatsby (12A)

Directed by: Baz LuhrmanN

Starring: Leonardo Di Caprio, Tobey Maguire, Carey Mulligan, Joel Edgerton

* * *

IT’S hard to think of a more appropriate way to approach the excesses chronicled and skewered in The Great Gatsby than the one Baz Luhrmann adopts in this latest attempt to bring F Scott Fitzgerald’s classic to the big screen. Bombastic, impressionistic, sumptuously designed, meticulously photographed, at times wilfully vulgar, and gussied with lots of postmodern visual flourishes and a Moulin Rouge-style contemporary hip-hop soundtrack, it’s so over-the-top it’s frequently in danger of losing any ironic distance from the material, and becoming a flat-out tribute to conspicuous consumption.

Barely a scene goes by that isn’t colour-coordinated or composed with the aesthetic harmony of a Vogue fashion shoot. Gatsby’s mansion in particular provides a Xanadu-like setting of nouveau riche wonderment, “a theme-park ride” through a hedonistic world in which happiness is the elusive end point destined never to be reached. Luhrmann will likely raise the ire of Gatsby purists worried that he’s missed the point, but the nauseating effect of being bombarded with so much vacuous spectacle does, whether intentionally or not, reinforce the novel’s thematic preoccupations.

The larger problem is how to translate the poetry of Fitzgerald’s prose onto the big screen. Without it, the basic story of mysterious self-made millionaire Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his pursuit of idealised society girl Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan) risks being reduced to a melodramatic tale of unrequited love. That’s perhaps why past attempts – particularly the soporific 1974 version – have been reluctant to give up Fitzgerald’s own framing device and have simply deployed the novel’s narrator, Nick Carraway, to deliver huge swathes of the book via voiceover.

Sadly, Luhrmann isn’t above doing this either. Turning Nick (Tobey Maguire) into an anxiety-ridden alcoholic who takes to writing about Gatsby while drying out in a sanatorium, the film makes us privy to the creation of the novel, with its most famous lines not only spoken aloud by Maguire but writ-large on the screen. It certainly helps distract from Maguire’s rather droning voice (which still has a trace of Peter Parker). Alas, it doesn’t quite solve the problem of how to make The Great Gatsby a cinematic story rather than faux literary one.

But maybe that’s just down to the paradoxical nature of trying to adapt a novel about the impossibility of escaping the past while attempting to create something anew. That’s the essence of Gatsby after all. He’s a character from humble beginnings, trying to shake off his own history for fear that it will tarnish the perfect future he’s trying to construct for himself. Luckily Luhrmann hasn’t tried to shake off his own past: casting Romeo + Juliet star Leonardo DiCaprio as Gatsby is probably the smartest thing he’s done with the film.

DiCaprio does make a fantastic Gatsby. In an audacious move, he’s first introduced against a backdrop of fireworks as George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue swells up on soundtrack. In that one moment DiCaprio encapsulates all the charm, fear, heartache and delusion of a character so singularly driven to making his fantasies a reality that his overwhelming optimism blinds him – and briefly others – to the way the world really works.

It’s a good movie-star turn – full of charisma, but also nuanced enough to let us see the cracks appear in the character, first through Nick’s eyes, and then through Gatsby’s own as the details of his elaborately misconceived plan to win back Daisy (Carey Mulligan) start to reveal themselves. That’s not easy to pull off. The artifice involved in playing a character built entirely on artifice is a delicate operation, but DiCaprio does it brilliantly, whether it’s subtly fluctuating his accent as his jovial “old sport” greeting becomes an increasingly defensive signifier of his desperation to hide his old life, or the way he convincingly shows the momentary bliss Gatsby feels when he’s reunited with Daisy.

DiCaprio certainly looks more comfortable in the film’s exuberant setting than Maguire, who never quite manages to match his performance to the way Luhrmann frames him. That, however, may also be down to the decision to shoot in 3D, which, save for a few sweeping shots Gatsby’s parties, gives proceedings a weird pop-up-book look. It may add depth to a world that’s all surface, but it really just feels like one too many needless excesses in a film full already bursting with them.