Emotions survive beneath the veneer of glitz and glamour
I must confess that I picked up F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby after I got to know that the Australian filmmaker, Baz Luhrmann is adapting it for the big screen. I had not seen the earlier cinematic adaptations and knew nothing about the story. Gatsby was as much a mystery to me as he is to the other characters in the book. I made his acquantaince when I was in his adopted city, New York. I started reading the book at an airport with snow falling outside; the beauty and the sadness of the story enveloped me over the course of a seven-hour flight. By the time I reached the destination, I was in love with the book, the characters and the idea of the film.
I wondered if Luhrmann, known for his opulent and indulgent productions, be able to do justice to the story? When the initial reviews came in, I was most intrigued by this headline in The Playlist: “The Great Gatsby is a decadently empty tale of empty decadence and impossible love”. After watching the film, I can say that it’s partly true and partly not. The Great Gatsby is certainly a tale of empty decadence and impossible love… that’s what Fitzgerald tried to say in 1925, and that’s what Luhrmann has successfully managed to capture in the film. His excesses are breathtakingly beautiful and at times vulgar… we are mesmerized as well as disgusted, just like Nick Carraway, the narrator, the wall-flower in this story – he silently observes, gets seduced by the world of the rich and famous and then leaves disillusioned. The director largely stays true to the book and the theme of impossible love. That’s where I disagree with The Playlist, The Great Gatsby is not a decadently empty tale; beneath the veneer of glitz and glamour, the emotions survive. Luhrmann manages to give you both hope and despair and you’re able to empathise with and hope for Gatsby attaining his dream.
When I read the book, Fitzgerald’s characters appeared as real in 2013 as they were in the 1920s where the story is set. I had met Daisys and Toms and Jordans and Nicks in my life… but not some one like Jay Gatsby. The film manages to portray the characters in the same manner and the actors are able to draw the emotions just like the book. Leonardo DiCaprio is perfect for the role of Jay Gatsby and he delivers… he is vulnerable in some scenes and in some he shows the enthusiasm and nervousness of a boy on his first day at school. Watch out for the scene where he waits to meet Daisy after many years and the one where he tells Nick that you can relive the past… you know he is in denial and you are Nick at that time. Tobey Maguire is good as a young, aspiring writer and I wish they had done away with the whole writing a book thing with him as a narrative tool. Joel Edgerton is perfect as Tom Buchanan, an arrogant, rich bully while newcomer, Elizabeth Debicki appears cool, calm and confident as Jordan Baker, a golf player and socialite. I actually find Jordan’s character quite interesting as like Nick, she observes the lives of Tom, Daisy and Jay but remains aloof. She says something very simple that defines who she is and says a lot about the story, “I love large parties, they are so intimate; at small parties there isn’t any privacy”. Daisy is perhaps one of the most interesting female lead characters ever written; she is in love, she is emotionally torn but she is also a particular type of person that we discover slowly. Luhrmann and Craig Pearce (screenplay) have tried to balance the flippant socialite side of her with how Gatsby sees her. Carey Mulligan gives a fine performance as Daisy and looks the part with her diamond tiaras and chandelier dresses. Among the supporting cast, the most interesting part belongs to Amitabh Bachchan who plays a Jewish gangster named Meyer Wolfsheim. While the character gets limited screen time, it is an important part and Bachchan manages to carry it off with élan. Myrtle Wilson’s important character in the book gets less prominence in the film but is performed well by Isla Fisher. Jason Clarke plays her husband, George Wilson, the always drunk garage owner; once again it is an under-leveraged character, maybe because of the already long duration of the film (143 minutes).
I’d like to give a special mention for the technicians who worked on this ambitious film project, which in true Luhrmann style is also an over-the-top art project. Oscar winner, Catherine Martin who is also Luhrmann’s wife, takes credit for the opulent sets and costumes for which she collaborated with Brooks Brothers (Gatsby), Tiffany’s and Prada (Daisy). Simon Duggan’s cinematography is good for most parts but the fast (read really fast) camera movements make it a little unsettling for the viewers, especially in 3D. It took me some time to get used to the the film just like it did with the high frame rate cinematography used in The Hobbit. Once my eyes settled and the camera slowed down to rest on the characters, I enjoyed the use of 3D to give depth to the scenes. Another distraction that the makers could have avoided is the highly-stylized appearance of words from Nick’s journal, typewriter and narrative on the screen.
While some of my fellow movie watchers expected a more authentic 1920s style jazz, I quite enjoyed the modern interpretation with hip-hop influence in the film’s score, produced by Jay-Z and music arranger, Elliot Wheeler. The songs I quite enjoyed are Lana Del Ray’s “Young and Beautiful”, “Love is Blindness” performed by Jack White and “Back to Black” by Beyoncé and André 3000. I’d also like to mention the excellent job done by the film’s marketing and public relations team; they haven’t left a stone unturned to make it the most talked about and buzziest film this summer.
Unlike the great American novel, Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby may not be the great American film but it certainly is an entertaining one with its heart in place. Do watch it if you don’t mind playing along with the director’s over-the-top style and indulgences.