An extravagant showman. A soulless individual obsessed with style over substance. Baz Luhrmann is the classic case of a ‘marmite’ director, with his body of work proving divisive. From the unorthodox postmodern approach to a Shakespearean classic, to the frenzied razzmatazz of Moulin Rouge, his fascination with forbidden love stories tinged with tragedy make a great case for him striving for ‘auteur’ status. ‘The Great Gatsby’ is a much beloved F. Scott Fitzgerald work that perhaps encapsulates many elements littered within Luhrmann’s films. With the appliance of 3D, is the colourful character deliberately attempting to cause upheaval with the purists with this glossy version?
1922 New York City, where the inhabitants of the Big Apple are drowning themselves in liquor and intoxicated by the vividness of their own American dreams. Arriving from the Mid-West with his own aspirations, wannabe writer/Wall Street trader Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) is our socially awkward yet level headed guide/narrator through such a care free period. Initially far from comfortable being immersed in such lavish situations, he is eventually drawn to his enigmatic neighbour whom is the talk of the town.
Money to burn and parties to throw, Jay Gatsby’s (Leonardo Dicaprio) handsome exterior may charm the masses but from a personal perspective, are mere tools to aid him to recapture a romance ripped apart by his exertions in World War I. Embracing Nick whom remains oblivious, it’s no coincidence that the attraction is Nick’s frivolous yet glamourous cousin Daisy played by Carey Mulligan. Gatsby’s ‘living in the fast lane’ approach is abruptly drawn to a halt, with the added complications of her involvement with domineering husband Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton) and the gradual tease of his mysterious past.
With much eluding to the ‘green light’, it serves as a visual metaphor that drives home the rashness of its character’s ‘decisions’ and also the intertextual indulgence that its director dabbles in once again. Its passive nod to the Jazz age in exchange with bombarding you with an eclectic soundtrack consisting of hip-hop heavy Jay-Z and the soaring vocals of Florence Welch a mere example, Luhrmann seems determined to make his ‘Gatsby’ accessible and incorporate his lead protagonist’s narrative arc to draw comparisons with the obsessive party hard nature of well renowned figures that saturates modern culture and its pratfalls.
As a direct result, this adaptation whilst faithful to the text occasionally gets stifled by its superficial and shallow tendencies particularly in its uneven and frenetically edited early stages, compounded by its nonetheless stunning aesthetic. Once our leading man is emphatically introduced however, the film settles into a much improved narrative rhythm allowing the story to breathe and eventually soar.
Reunited with Luhrmann seventeen years after his portrayal of Romeo, Dicaprio is inevitably the star of the show here with a mesmerising performance as Gatsby. Wonderfully nuanced as his persona slowly unravels yet fittingly charismatic at the height of his powers, praising the ever consistent actor has indeed become an ‘old sport’. Whilst undeniably there is a deeper interpretation of her character lurking underneath, Carey Mulligan is solid as love interest Daisy with their well staged meet-cute fittingly understated. Deliberately serving here as a reliable figure increasingly drifting onto the outskirts ‘looking in’, Tobey Maguire is competent as Carraway with the ‘lesser knowns’ Joel Edgerton and Elizabeth Debicki also subverting their potentially limited roles with aplomb.
Inevitably, this 2013 version will polarise audiences with the hardcore fans potentially greeting the film with much disdain. Nonetheless, audacious in its execution and anchored by a terrific lead performance, ‘The Great Gatsby’ for all its spectacular visuals and artistic flair, may just be Luhrmann’s most restrained and emotionally engaging film to date.