Baz Luhrmann’s Rethinking of The Great Gatsby

Boats Against the Current

The Great Gatsby poster

It has been almost a century now since Gatsby’s green light has been beckoning to Romantics everywhere.  The perennial appeal of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s brilliant and enigmatic hero, Jay Gatsby, in the author’s 1925 novel, The Great Gatsby, seems never to wane; not only has the novel become standard reading in every literature course, but it has made it to the silver screen in five adaptations, the most recent by Australian director Baz Luhrmann.

Lurhmann, known for his sweeping epic style (Australia) and willingness to enhance and update material (Romeo + Juliet), tells Fitzgerald’s story with an uninhibited abandon that combines glitzy excess with respectful – often almost too literal -fidelity to the book.  Luhrmann’s and Craig Pearce’s screenplay makes copious use of Fitzgerald’s prose, and this lends substance and emotional impact to the drama.  The screenwriters’ decision, however, to let Nick Carraway tell the story from a sanitarium where his doctor urges him to write what he remembers, is an unnecessary conceit – a little borrowing from Salinger’s Holden Caulfield?  Intrusive, too, are the words of the novel which appear visually on the screen in various scenes—dancing fragments of Nick’s creative memory.  In fact, the writers’ and director’s tendency to bolster the prose with repeated visual images sometimes works and sometimes verges on the pedantic.  (The huge billboard with the eyes that survey the Wilsons’ garage does give the appropriate ominous, foreboding air, but the frequent use of the green dock light renders too mundane what is in Fitzgerald’s book a haunting symbol of hope and failed dreams.)

Lurhmann’s depiction of The Jazz Age is so raucous, so large, that it assaults the sensibilities of the viewer with its sheer busyness.  Simon Duggan’s cinematography is frequently frenetic in its attempt to capture the rhythms of the Roaring Twenties.  Catherine Martin’s production design features lavish art deco sets and couture costumes, that are at once stunningly beautiful and a bit over the top.  The result is often jarring and sometimes, as in the case of the contemporary music score, off-putting.  Bit there are moments of raw passion and powerful emotional intensity sometimes missing in earlier film versions.

Much of this has to do with the fine acting by the principals, especially Leonardo DiCaprio and Tobey Maguire.  DiCaprio not only possesses the dashing physical presence required for the hero, but he brilliantly captures the Gatsby’s contradictions.  He wears an inscrutable mask through much of the party and public scenes, which falls away disarmingly when he is with Daisy and later on in the film with his only true friend, Nick. With his ubiquitous epithet of old sport, he dons the perfect affected accent of his Oxford man/millionaire.  And as the layers of his assumed identity are penetrated by Nick and Daisy, he touchingly reveals the vulnerability and doomed Romanticism of his nature.

As the narrator Nick Carraway, Tobey Maguire turns in an admirably nuanced performance.  He manages to combine the essential innocence, honesty, and decency of Nick with the thrill of voyeurism that his West Egg summer affords.  His affection for Gatsby wars with his desire to remain detached until the conflict threatens to overwhelm him.

Carey Mulligan is a beautiful, fragile Daisy, at once doe-eyed, helpless and lethal siren, but she does not completely project Daisy’s carelessness and ruthlessness.  She elicits more sympathy for her character than Fitzgerald’s heroine with the alabaster heart.

As Jordan Baker, Elizabeth Debicki suffers from Luhrmann’s simplifying of her character.  We are not allowed to see Jordan’s cheating and dishonesty or the callous way in which she enters into a romance with Nick Carraway. Thus, she simply drifts through the film looking pale and stunning, an empty chimera.

Joel Edgerton has the brutishness Fitzgerald imputes to Tom Buchanan, though he does not sufficiently project the old boy charm which won Daisy in the first place.  Jason Clarke is a loutish George Wilson who does manage to grab the audience’s sympathy when his wife is killed, though Isla Fisher portrayal of Myrtle is perilously close to parody.  Amitabh Bachchan makes a brief but memorable appearance as Meyer Wolfsheim.

For all its flaws, Lurhmann’s remake does offer a screen experience well worth viewing.  DiCaprio’s and Maguire’s performances have an emotional intensity that is formidable.  Above all, however, it is F. Scott Fitzgerald’s seminal novel with its beautiful tragic hero which bears revisiting.  The latest movie version of The Great Gatsby brings us Jay Gatsby’s quest in Fitzgerald’s own prose, and that, in itself, is sheer poetry.

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