After months of anticipation and trepidation, Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby finally reached our screens. As if excitement for a new Luhrmann film and apprehension about another adaptation of one of my favorite books of all time wasn’t enough to keep me anxious, Warner Brothers decided to change the release date from December 2012 to May 2013, in a move that made me nervous as much as it relieved me. Nervous, because I wondered whether there were re-edits in store that signaled a lack of confidence on the part of the director or the studio. Relieved, because with the weight of expectation on the film’s shoulders in the awards season, critical reaction would have been vicious. Luhrmann, like many other directors whose styles are strongly pronounced and whose visions are uncompromising, inspires as much reprimand as he does adoration, and with a source novel as popular and as seemingly unsuited to his style, knives were out for his film the very day production started.
In retrospect, the date change proved to be an incredibly smart move. For one thing, in the box office heat of the summer, The Great Gatsby will perform much better than it would have in the glut of December prestige releases. The opening weekend figures suggest it is easily on its way to making a sizable profit. More importantly, the critical reaction, though not exactly favorable, will not be as detrimental to the film’s public acceptance or longevity. Not that it deserves such critical disrespect anyway. Luhrmann’s adaptation is a film that, despite many glaring flaws, cannot be dismissed for its sheer audacity alone.
If you’ve never read the book – which would be a bit strange for anyone who cares enough to read this review – The Great Gatsby, a timeless classic by F. Scott Fitzgerald of which I have always been an absolute devotee, is narrated by Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) who is a failed author and a bondsman living in New York in the 1920s. His cousin, Daisy (Carey Mulligan), is married to the preposterously wealthy, “old-money”, Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton), and spends her days wandering around her mansion in the East Egg, chatting about all matters of insignificance with her friend Jordan Baker (Elizabeth Debicki) who is a famous golfer. Nick lives across the bay in the West Egg, where his humble house is located next to the ostentatious castle of a mysterious man name Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio). All that is known to the public about Gatsby is that he throws lavish parties frequently, where alcohol and music and debauchery run wild. Gatsby rarely ever introduces himself to the guests, though he does so to Nick, in the hope of getting to meet Daisy, whom he reveals to be a former lover of his before he went to the war, leaving Daisy to marry Tom.
Quite surprisingly, Luhrmann’s adaptation is almost entirely faithful to the original text, which is, while not an indictment of his screenplay, certainly not a compliment either. For all the pizzazz, the explosions of color and light and sound and the seemingly modernized aura of the film, Luhrmann often emphasizes the text more markedly than he needs to – even going so far as to superimpose it on the screen as he did with Christian’s play in Moulin Rouge! This adherence to the text is appropriate for iconic lines like Nick’s “you’re worth the whole damn bunch put together” but less fitting when the narrator reminds the audience of the symbolism that the blue eyes are those of an omnipresent God, hence stripping the imagery of all its poignancy.
The actors, too, become vessels through which Fitzgerald’s text can be materialized. There is little about their performance that suggests any level of recreation or invention; yet, they are all perfectly cast and more than comfortable in bringing their characters to life. Tobey Maguire, whose performances, however strong, have never been the most memorable aspect of any of his films, has the perfect physique to perform the diligent but uninvolved observer. Leonardo DiCaprio maintains just the right balance between authority and charm to convincingly flesh out the mysterious, pompous and yet, hopelessly breakable millionaire. Joel Edgerton is also brilliant at playing the proudly irresponsible and arrogantly macho quasi-villain. But no one can hold a candle to Carey Mulligan, who, as Daisy, proves to be a flawless piece of casting. To rehash that old cliché, she is Daisy. Her every mannerism, every line delivery, every distant gaze and abrupt slump into a breakdown is reminiscent of the poetry of Fitzgerald’s novel; and we know that from the get-go. When she’s first introduced to us on the screen in all her pixie glory, the only thing one can think of is the author’s introduction of the character in the book:
“It was the kind of voice that the ear follows up and down, as if each speech is an arrangement of notes that will never be played again. Her face was sad and lovely with bright things in it, bright eyes and a bright passionate mouth, but there was an excitement in her voice that men who had cared for her found difficult to forget: a singing compulsion, a whispered “listen,” a promise that she had done gay, exciting things just a while since and that there were gay, exciting things hovering in the next hour.”
Mulligan’s performance gets a lot of help from Catherine Martin’s meticulous costume and set design, though not to the extent that Debicki and DiCaprio do. Their performances are inseparable from Martin’s work, for it is impossible to discuss DiCaprio’s characterization of Gatsby’s uncomfortable inclusion among Daisy’s posse in that Manhattan apartment without thinking of the superbly tailored and yet, completely ill-fitted pink suit. It is similarly impossible to think of Jordan’s cold demeanor and nouveau riche splendor without that gorgeous backless dress immediately springing to mind. Martin’s stamp on the film is clearly visible in every frame. Others might replace ‘visible’ with ‘overbearing’ but that is really what I appreciate most about the film: that it takes an unfilmable book and goes balls to the wall in visualizing it. A few days removed from my screening of this energetic and passionate adaptation, what I remember most fondly is the sight of Gatsby’s personal logo at the bottom of his pool as he dives in, the silky smooth shirts he throws at Daisy, the sight of his awkward posture in a roomful of sparkling flowers, and Carraway’s carefully selected, Art Deco tea sieve.
It would seem disingenuous of me to criticize Luhrmann for being stubbornly imaginative with his adaptation, having praised him for being uncompromising in his vision, but I do wish he had gone a different route with the score. His appropriation of modern music integrated seamlessly into the wild carnival of Moulin Rouge! but in The Great Gatsby, this approach backfires terribly. During many of the sequences over which the soundtrack plays – and that is nearly every little bit of the film – it effectively keeps the audience at a cognitive distance, always aware of the music as a separate and distastefully mismatched entity. But I’m willing to forgive Luhrmann this odd decision. Instead, I will remain thankful that his vision is out there and his extravagant, hyper-stylized worlds can still come to life. In a cinematic climate where auteurial voices are increasingly moving toward thorny realism, an unapologetic stylist with an unabashed penchant for cacophonous constructs and artificial thrills is a vital voice that needs to be celebrated.