The Review: Moby Dick. The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn. The Catcher In The Rye. To Kill A Mockingbird. All candidates to be, at one time or another, thought of as The Great American Novel. Each instantly conjures up very specific images and thoughts of its era, be it the banks of the Mississippi river or the highly charged atmosphere of a courtroom in the Great Depression. They also have iconic characters as identifiable as the novels themselves, from Captain Ahab to Holden Caulfield, from Atticus Finch to Tom Sawyer. When tackling such a cultural heavyweight, two approaches immediately suggest themselves: to simply stage the material in as plain a manner as possible, to allow the situation and the characters to speak for themselves, or to distil the key elements of the source and to then attempt to concentrate them and then to do your best to inject them directly into your eyeballs. Anyone familiar with the oeuvre of Baz Luhrmann will not be hugely surprised to hear that the soundtrack includes cover versions of Crazy In Love and Back To Black and you’ll need some indoor sunglasses, whether or not you see it in 3D.
You can imagine that the setting was what attracted Luhrmann to Gatsby initially; when a decade is prefixed by the word “roaring”, is there anyone more suited to visually realising that roar? The only slight problem with the Roaring Twenties as put on screen by Baz are that the feel awfully like the escapades of the bohemians of Montmatre around thirty years earlier. When Gatsby puts on one of his enormous weekend parties, it’s hard not to imagine Ewan McGregor and Nicole Kidman belting their lungs out in a side room somewhere. Despite the repetition, it’s an effective device, contemporising the art direction and costumes to the jazz age but making the music contemporary to our times is about all you could do to put modern audiences, who probably couldn’t tell their Charleston from their Charles Lindbergh, into the mindset of what made the height of that decade so irresistible. Many adaptations of The Great Gatsby have moved their setting to later in the twenties as a precursor to The Great Depression, making it a moral tale of the downfall of the overambitious, but Baz wisely keeps the focus earlier, allowing the characters to stand and fall on their own terms and recognising that you don’t need to add a Wall Street crash to get underneath the fallacy of the American dream of the times. But if there’s one moment that is sublimely effective, it’s actually one ripped straight from the era, our first introduction to the great Gatsby himself being surrounded by fireworks and the triumphant refrain of Gershwin’s Rhapsody In Blue.
DiCaprio might just be perfect casting for the elusive Gatsby, who retains his charm even as his secrets are exposed. That winning smile and the glint in the eye magnetise those around him, except for Joel Edgerton’s Tom who refuses to be taken in. DiCaprio and Edgerton are both electric and it’s their scenes together that give The Great Gatsby some of its best moments. Maybe surprisingly to those keen to stereotype him, it’s the most dialled down moments of the film that actually hold the greatest power, from DiCaprio and Edgerton bristling at each other with half-glances to Gatsby staring wistfully across the bay, longing for his lost Daisy (Carey Mulligan). The problems with the casting start with Mulligan, who’s a fantastic actress with almost nothing to do except scenery dressing, the heart and soul somewhere lost and the tension between her male suitors subsequently diminished. The other black hole is in Tobey Maguire’s Nick Carraway, Maguire’s expressionless face often too passive to surrounding events. The loss of his relationship in the novel and a framing device added with Maguire both narrating and in a hospital, reviewing events after the fact, only serves to put further distance between him and the other cast, undermining his own narrative arc.
It’s not just Nick Carraway’s narrative that doesn’t quite come off; the framing device also allows Luhrmann to indulge some of his more theatrical flourishes, including having Fitzgerald’s words appear on screen as Carraway’s character writes them, a literary allusion too far and the text feels heavier and less natural as a result. Overall this makes The Great Gatsby somewhat of a mixed bag, and it may come down to the very nature of the source material. The central characters, despite the natural pull of Gatsby himself, are a little less sympathetic than Baz’s normal doomed romances, from Christian and Satine to Romeo and Juliet themselves, and it never quite feels that we’ve understood what truly motivates them in the way that Luhrmann has had his cast portray them. The Great Gatsby isn’t a total success, but even when it’s shot like a parody of a perfume advert it never feels anything less than interesting. Sadly this Great American Novel has to settle for being just a middling American film.
Why see it at the cinema: No one makes a spectacle of themselves and their cast quite like Baz, but while the jazz parties look great, some of the more intimate moments, especially the later confrontations, work much better in a darkened room with your full attention.
Why see it in 3D: Luhrmann doesn’t make quite as much of the 3D in the party scenes as you might expect. Instead, some of the most effective moments are simply staring across the bay, emphasising the geographical and emotional distance between the characters. Generally the luminescence holds up, even in some of the darker scenes, and overall the 3D is a worthwhile option if you’re a fan of such things.
What about the rating: Rated 12A for moderate sex, violence and bloody images. Lurmann and Pearce keep it fairly restrained and it’s pretty much in the centre of the distribution of 12A ratings. Whether or not your children would be interested in a gaudy extrapolation of a ninety year old novel is another matter entirely.
My cinema experience: Having seen Fast & Furious 6 (at the Cineworld in Bury St. Edmunds) directly before, I was a little concerned at having not booked a ticket. Thankfully, despite the 2D showing an hour earlier having completely sold out, the 3D and the later showing time proved less of a draw and saw a crowd two-thirds full. Just at the end of a decent amount of ads and trailers, a group of about five middle-aged sounding women (it was dark, so who knows really?) came in and sat very audibly behind me. The fact that they settled fairly quickly, seemed thoroughly entertained throughout and left making wholly complementary remarks suggests there is an audience out there for this, and not just for middle-aged women; just maybe not for this middle-aged man.
The Score: 6/10