Sited by many as one of the greatest novels of the twentieth century, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby is a book that I have never read. As a result this review will be based purely on the Baz Lehrmann film and not informed in any way, shape or form by the source text. Lehrmann is a director who I generally have little time for. His in your face, ultra heightened fantasy style is not normally to my liking but a film set amongst the excess of post war, roaring 20s is the sort of project which may perfectly suit his visual eye. With The Great Gatsby, Lehrmann creates a film which is full of cinematic choices which are both at the same time wrong and fitting and while I don’t necessarily agree with all (or in fact most of his choices), he has created a film which sets itself apart from the competition and is both bold and exciting.
Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) is a graduate of Yale University who moves to New York’s Long Island, home of the rich and famous, with the hopes of making his fortune in the blossoming stock market on Wall Street, twenty miles to the west. Carraway’s neighbour is an enigmatic figure called Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio), a man who few know or have even met, yet a man whose name and lavish parties are known by everyone from Senators to starlets to smugglers. Gatsby befriends his neighbour but remains somewhat aloof until one day when the rich inscrutable Gatsby requests help in setting up a meeting between himself and Carraway’s beautiful but married cousin Daisy (Carey Mulligan), a woman not unknown to Gatsby.
I was in two minds as to whether to read the novel before seeing the movie adaptation as I wasn’t sure which version I wanted to encounter first. I generally find that having not read the book on which a film is based that I bring into the cinema less baggage and am able to enjoy the movie as a movie rather than comparing it to a book which will invariably be better. So it was with a clear and Gatsby free mind that I encountered Baz Lehrmann’s adaptation earlier today. It isn’t surprising to me that the novel is so highly prized and revered by its fans as the plot is superb. It’s full of complex meaning, simile, metaphor and a terrific love story. The film’s writing was excellent so I can only imagine how good it is to read Fitzgerald’s original text. (A friend is actually lending me the book tomorrow, so I’ll soon find out).
The plot takes in the sights and sounds of the art deco inspired 1920s, a period which I personally love. The costume and set design is fantastic and recreates a seemingly authentic feel. The hair, makeup, dresses, suits and jewellery are all wonderfully realised and look tremendous. The film as a whole is an assault on your senses, combining modern hip hop (which I’ll come to in more detail) with swooping cityscape CG effects and the close up, sweaty frolicking of the decade of excess. The physical sets and effects were memorable and effective but I was less enamoured with the CGI. Lehrmann’s CGI always seems to have a fairytale quality to it and appears to forgo realism in favour of the wow factor. As I mentioned, I’m a huge fan of the history and look of the era so to see my favourite city on Earth from cloud level at one of my favourite periods was a treat for my eyes. Swooping down like a hawk to ground level was also exhilarating and the overall level of lift and movement from the CG was a bold choice. I think that Lehrmann pulls off the idea in a satisfactorily way and although it might not have worked, he stuck with it and created from start to finish, a Baz Lehrmann Great Gatsby rather than A Great Gatsby, something which any number of directors could have produced.
The choice of music for the film is a little more controversial than the use of computer generated effects. The director had at his disposal a decade full of terrific ragtime and jazz music to choose from but instead opted for a mixture of hip hop, R ‘n’ B and pop songs. Going in to the film I was extremely sceptical about how this would work but in the end, much like the visuals, Lehrmann pulls off his decision. The use of modern music works well with the beat of the film and the wealth inspired rap lyrics fit with the themes of the story. Lehrmann and musical director Craig Armstrong also splice in music from the period to create a sort of mash-up of styles which although isn’t what I would liked to have seen, works well with this particular film. I would still have preferred a full jazz soundtrack but at least what we get instead is interesting.
A problem that I have with Lehrmann’s stylistic choices is that although they may feel edgy and cool now, in ten years time when Jay-Z, Beyonce and the like are outdated and when the CGI starts to lose its freshness, the film will date horrendously. Had the director opted for a more traditional approach then perhaps it might have helped the film to age gracefully but what I expect is that the film will end up taking the James Dean, live fast and die young approach and suffer in the future. Despite this, there’s no taking away from the director’s vision which is overstated, outlandish and bold. A major problem I personally had with The Great Gatsby was with its use of 3D. I had absolutely no intention of seeing the film in 3D but due to a scheduling conflict (i.e. me working during the day and my girlfriend on night shifts); we were inflicted with the silly glasses and loss of light accompanied by worse than usual blur. The 3D is some of the worst I’ve ever seen (and that’s saying something). It’s blurry throughout and adds absolutely nothing to the film. It is totally without merit and I actually took the glasses off, something which I’ve never done before.
Something which I enjoyed greatly about The Great Gatsby was its story and the meanings behind the characters and plot. The film’s themes touch upon the effects of excess and the long-standing battle between old and new money. I found the differences between the Gatsby and Buchannan characters fascinating. The idea of The American Dream is at the centre of the story with the Gatsby character epitomising the role of The All-American Hero, a man who is rich, handsome, and successful in business and war. The recklessness of youth is something which also stands out and the truth behind the idea that the party never stops is also explored toward the end. The conflict of class and love is something which forms the beating heart of the story and something which I’m really looking forward to uncovering more of when I read the novel later this week.
Overall I was impressed with my introduction to The Great Gatsby. There are some missteps along the way and I wasn’t always at ease with the stylistic decisions but at the same time I appreciate the efforts of a director who wants to put his own spin on something which is known to so many. The performances are great with DiCaprio shining and Maguire not annoying me but it is Carey Mulligan who steals the film with a performance of a character which I can’t even begin to imagine another actor inhabiting. The film might not strike a chord with hardcore Gatsby fans but as a neutral observer I thought that the plot was conveyed clearly and was surrounded by the colour, noise and razzle-dazzle which matched the era of fun, excess and the care free attitude as well as the passion, trauma and downward spiral of the third act.