Directed by Baz Luhrmann
What can one say? I approached the Luhrmann version of Gatsby with mixed feelings. Having read several reviews it was a film that clearly polarised audiences – people either loved it or hated it. It was difficult to come to this adaptation with a fresh perspective having read the novel and seen the Redford version; as I watched I found it impossible not to make comparisons. Thus, I found myself constantly evaluating each scene in terms of whether it captured the essence of Fitzgerald’s narrative, or how effective it was by comparison to the other film version. Suffice it to say there were moments I hated and moments where I could appreciate which aspect of the narrative the director was emphasising. Trying to be as objective as possible I would say, if you hadn’t read the book or watched the previous film version you might just enjoy this film as a stand-alone achievement. Not being in that category myself, I could not bring myself to like it.
Firstly, of course there was the over-the-topness of Luhrmann, his trademark style. This was hit and miss as usual, but his style enhanced certain scenes, particularly the instance of Tobey Maguire’s character Nick Caraway getting drunk in New York. That scene had a certain theatricality that made sense.
From the perspective of an adaptation, the film had many flaws, particularly in misrepresenting characters and as a result, making some of the plot twists not making sense. Whilst The Great Gatsby was a ridiculous book in many respects, its one iconic feature was the man Gatsby himself. He was suave, sophisticated wealthy (‘I have my shirts sent over from London’) and a paragon of politeness. In the novel he is godlike, a man who Nick Caraway, the novel’s narrator idolises. Gatsby, is a self-made man, who made his wealth through bootlegging and mob connections. Despite this he remains a figure of awe in the narrative as he rises above the sordidness of the past through his idealism. His dream is that of rekindling the love of his sweetheart, Daisy. In rewriting parts of the script in this overlong film version, Gatsby’s aura is watered down, and even Leonardo DiCaprio’s iconic style and mannerisms cannot save him from appearing weak, indecisive and ineffectual. Hence Nick Caraway’s final line to Gatsby, ‘you’re better than all of them’ does not make sense as he is not presented that way in this film.
This film is too long by far and, unlike the Redford version, which was more faithful to the novel, there are some very (and I mean very) clichéd and repetitive bits of dialogue that simple make parts of the movie tiresome and tedious. If they went to such expense with the quality of actors (it is a very good cast) and the glitzy cinematography, surely they could have spent a bit more and hired a better script writer. Let’s give you a few examples. Gatsby’s often quoted expression ‘old sport’ is quaint and charming, lending an ironic whimsy to a youthful man who employs such an old fashioned expression. It adds to the air of mystique and the aura of this self-made man who, like Hamlet is spoken of before he makes his entrance. In this film he uses the phrase ad nauseam as though it is a nervous tick and it makes you cringe after a while as though the man was a bumbling idiot rather than a smooth talking debonair. Then there were these additional little bits here and there that did not appear in the novel but were so clichéd. Fitzgerald’s narrative, aside from being laboured, was remarkable for its original taut dialogue. Lines such as Gatsby’s ‘of course you can’ when told he could not ‘repeat the past’ were memorable and articulate examples of human pathos and idealism. Even Daisy’s lines ‘what will we do with ourselves’ hints at her near madness as she is torn by Gatsby’s impossible love for her whether to leave her unfaithful husband. Daisy was much much better portrayed in this film than in the Redfern version, which was a bizarre performance by Mia Farrow. But even in respect of this relationship, one of the main impediments to the love affair between Gatsby and Daisy was downplayed, that being her child. The scene where Gatsby meets her child is equivalent to Macbeth seeing the forest marching from Birnham Wood. He realised for all his idealism, the wealth and the strength of his dream, it just wasn’t going to happen – reality set in and the shock on his face was palpable. This scene was not even included in the Luhrmann production.
Another thing that really bothered me was the repetitiveness. One only has to watch the start of Strictly Ballroom to know that Baz loves repetition. He does the same shot and uses it over and over again as though audiences are not savvy enough to realise it is exactly the same thing. He needs to more rigorously edit his films and boy would he sharpen the impact. This ties in with the symbolism of the film. The novel, for all its tedium was laced with potent symbolism, in particular the eyes of Dr. Eckleburg, from the faded billboard. These were symbolic of God watching the characters of the novel, particularly in juxtaposition to the sordid ash heap and the sordid morality of the characters. Symbolism requires subtlety and boy the use of this symbol was a subtle as a supersized McDonald’s meal. They must have run that shot at least 7 or 8 times, to the point it lost its significance as a symbol. The film maker is treating his audience as incredibly dumb, having to repeat a ‘symbol’ so many times in order to make it clear that it is somehow ‘important’, which in this case it wasn’t, because it lost its significance.
Just one more gripe before I finish. Toby Maguire. Great actor, perfect for the role. This is actually the sad thing – the cast were perfect – who could think of a better Gatsby than Leonardo DiCapprio? (Then again, it was testing the bounds of incredulity that he was trying to portray himself as 32, even with that baby face). As Nick Caraway, Maguire he is confiding in a doctor (Jack Thomson) who advises him to write his thoughts down about Gatsby. This was the director’s way of getting around the fact that his film was based on a first person narrative and to include as much of the narration as possible. This was laughable. There was no clear explanation or rationale for Thomson’s character. One minute he was Nicks doctor, the next minute his friend, then his gardener? This was lazy storytelling. It is a film not a novel, why do we need this voiceover at all. They should have used the medium of film and shown us this information, rather than narrating it to this loveable uncle type person.
Overall, a film for those new to the Gatsby idea. Not one for the purists.