The Great Gatsby
Dir. Baz Luhrmann
I recently came across the Portuguese word saudade. The word describes the sensation of longing for something or someone that you lost, or perhaps never had. There is no English word for this powerful mix of pain, hope and nostalgia, but F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby is an extended paean to the feeling. The eponymous hero is saudade personified as he lives and dies for his lost love.
I start my review of Baz Luhrmann’s supercharged film adaptation of the novel with this word because it’s the key to all adaptations of Gatsby. We all experience saudade at some point in our lives. It’s an exquisite, painful and personal sensation. Similarly, we all experience our own Gatsby, and so it’s inevitable that we’ll find ourselves disappointed on some level by the fact that we’re watching the Australian director’s vision, and not our own.
But Luhrmann really, really loves Gatsby. Since he started working on the film, he has vowed to be as faithful to the novel as possible, and that faith is clear when watching his explosive rendition. He takes things too far with the much-maligned floating subtitles (though I found them less objectionable than expected), and he definitely references the green light too many times, but his film sparkles with life, and the Gatsby dream, in a way that leaves previous versions looking positively Victorian. When Tom and Gatsby face off in a hot New York hotel room, the tension and oppressiveness is palpable. When Daisy tours Gatsby’s mansion, the emotions running through the scene are real and moving. This is due to great acting of course, but also to great cinematography and style.
Some niggles: Many CGI landscapes were Polar Express-level fake, and jarred horribly. Serendipitous fireworks and shooting stars got old fast. The Mario Kart driving was deplorable. There are only so many times you can artfully cut between shots by following an aerobatic biplane down the side of a building (hint – it’s one at best). There was a little too much Luhrmann-Moulin Rouge burlesque. And did I mention the green light? I, like Gatsby, felt it lost its significance after the reunion in Nick’s cottage.
On the musical front, the anachronism of the soundtrack didn’t bother me so much as the monotone nature of a lot of the songs on it. The live music was mostly great; most of the canned stuff was awful. Overall, I definitely feel that some of the book’s subtler moments were lost in the madcap pace of the film. It’s a slim novel but Luhrmann made a fat film, and at points it was so sweeping that I felt I didn’t have the time or inclination to connect emotionally with the characters.
On the other hand, the lead cast made up for the emotionally-challenged pace by really juicing their roles. Leonardo DiCaprio as Gatsby is more desperate than “cool”, as Daisy describes him, but that desperation is magnificent, as are his moments of suave confidence and naïve hope. He’s a deeply believable Gatsby. Carey Mulligan mixes jadedness and childlike charm very well, and Joel Edgerton does a sterling job of depicting the boorish Tom Buchanan. Toby Maguire pitches Nick Carraway perfectly as the Kerouac-ish observer of the film, an outsider who (in the American author’s immortal words) “shambled after… [the people] that never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles”. The supporting cast is strong, especially Jason Clarke as the gas-pump operator George Wilson. Isla Fisher as Myrtle Wilson and Elizabeth Debicki as Jordan Baker are both criminally underexposed and underdeveloped.
Furthermore, I thought the device of putting Nick in a sanatorium worked unexpectedly well, the locations were great (especially the Valley of Ashes), and if the film struggles with quiet, it definitely captures the hollow and frenetic nature of Gatsby’s invented world, and the 20s themselves. When he doesn’t cartoon the decade, Luhrmann nails it.
Niggling details aside, I loved The Great Gatsby. It doesn’t capture my own imagined Gatsby, but it shows Luhrmann’s in a believable, touching way. It’s a strong film judged on its own merits, and a worthy adaptation of the novel. Perhaps, as with the original book, time will be kinder than the critics; I for one was impressed by an imaginative and ambitious rendering of one of my all-time favourite novels.