Like any Baz Luhrmann film, this is a splashy, flashy exercise in surface textures, style and costume, set design and special effects, but like the best of his works it matches these stylistic traits to characters who are constantly telling stories about themselves as a way of ingratiating themselves into the world around them. Yet if it’s a story about adapting, it’s not clear that this adaptation is particularly necessary, and when it tries to visualise some of the novel’s grand metaphors (ones so grand they are writ large on vast billboards or flash brightly and insistently), it can get a bit clunky. Some things are best left on the page and in the reader’s imagination.
I suppose that’s part of my fundamental problem with Luhrmann’s style: that it wants to revel in the grand artifice of its visuals, while also criticising the existence they depict as being ultimately hollow and self-defeating. Yet it’s a tension that results in some real coups de théâtre, making his films both invigorating and infuriating in equal measure, not to mention a bit wearying.
Gatsby is narrated by Nick (played by Tobey Maguire), here looking back at the novel’s events from a distance of time and, perhaps ominously, from a sanatorium, where he is recovering from alcohol abuse and depression. Maguire’s Nick is a gormless observer, waving goofily at the protagonists when he’s not wearing a perplexed expression. Given the framing device, we can at least be thankful he refrains from playing drunk; Luhrmann’s visuals do more than enough to suggest the quality of a fever dream, all hyperstylised parties and superimposed period colour. (Having said that, the early scenes do flash past in a blur, edited as if a trailer rather than the film proper, though this too is not unusual for Luhrmann.)
At the centre of the film is of course Leonardo DiCaprio’s Gatsby, and he does very well at this perplexing character, as much a self-created nouveau riche trying to inveigle himself into the world of old money, as he is a cipher and cynosure of Nick’s narrator. It’s appropriate then for Gatsby to be embodied by such a quintessential silver screen heartthrob as DiCaprio, rapturously filmed by Luhrmann’s camera (never more so than when first properly introduced in the film, framed against a background of fireworks). Gatsby is the lightning rod for Nick’s anxieties about American class, and the impossibility of the ‘American Dream’, thus requiring him to hold in balance forces that pull his character in various contradictory directions. Even more blank is Daisy Buchanan (played perfectly, airily by Carey Mulligan), Nick’s cousin who has married Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton), scion of an old money family. If Gatsby is a reconstruction of Nick’s imagination, then Daisy is at one further remove, so insubstantial a presence as to not exist when she’s not being coveted by the male characters.
143 minutes is a long time to be in this world (too long, no doubt), and if the film does slow down for the second half, it can still seem somewhat bludgeoning in its impact. I’ve mentioned those overwhelming visual metaphors, which are accompanied by myriad references to God and judgement in the script, to the extent that the filmmakers seem to be pushing beyond mere heavy-handedness into something more viscerally affecting. The viewer’s tolerance for this is probably down to how well you respond to Luhrmann’s style. There are car racing scenes taken straight from the Fast & Furious franchise, and a heady indulgence of the rush of nostalgia that at its best recalls Raúl Ruiz’s take on Proust (the similarly stylised Le Temps retrouvé, Time Regained, 1999). Yet the most affecting scenes for me may be the smaller ones, such as the vulgarity of Gatsby’s showering Daisy with his shirts (reminiscent of nothing in recent cinema so much as James Franco’s materialistic hollering in Spring Breakers about all his possessions), or the ridiculous expanse of flowers that close in on Gatsby and Daisy when they eventually meet.
The film succeeds at what it wants to do, and though I’m not sure I’d want to watch it again, it’s one I enjoyed thinking and talking about afterwards. A lot of this may be down to the source text, but there was enough in Luhrmann’s vision to capture the attention and even, at times, the imagination.
Director Baz Luhrmann; Writers Luhrmann and Craig Pearce (based on the novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald); Cinematographer Simon Duggan; Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Tobey Maguire, Carey Mulligan, Joel Edgerton; Length 143 minutes.
Seen at Vue Islington (2D), London, Sunday 19 May 2013.