The Great Gatsby

20 May

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Recent book sales suggest that the trailers for The Great Gatsby piqued the interest of the general public and tempted them into buying the book before seeing the film. I am one of those people. Like any other sane person who has read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic novel, I was blown away by it. In discussing my hopes for the film with a friend of mine, we both expressed a concern that Fitzgerald’s style of writing is so brilliant that it would be too hard to adapt. When reading the book, there were times when I read a sentence two or three times, so in awe was I of it’s genius.

Fitzgerald’s writing conjures up such fascinating, vivid images that nothing you see could ever really live up to it. This presents something of a dilemma in reviewing the film. As always with these adaptations, you can either accept it as a film in it’s own right, or you can compare it to the book. So iconic is Fitzgerald’s novel of love, money, change and the pursuit of the American Dream, that it’s impossible not to review it as an adaptation.

So, set in New York in the 1920’s the basic story is thus; As with the book, our narrator is Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire). He sells Bonds on a booming Wall Street, though he’s not exactly making much money. He buys himself a little house in the shadows of a huge mansion. After driving out to see his cousin, Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan) and her extremely wealthy husband Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton), he befriends a famous female golfer called Jordan Baker (Elizabeth Debicki). Through the course of their evening together we learn that the owner of the huge mansion next to Nick’s modest house is a mysterious millionaire by the name of Jay Gatsby (Leonardo Di Caprio). We also discover that Tom Buchanan has a mistress, but his wife seems unconcerned by this.

For me, the film didn’t establish the opening scenes as well as it could’ve done. In the book, Nick’s first meeting with Jordan is a drawn out affair. The way in which Nick describes her could never be captured on screen, which goes back to my earlier point – obviously, you draw your own first impressions instead of being told of Nick’s first impressions. The same goes for Daisy and Tom.

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What I would say struck me early on was how clear it was that Daisy and Jordan had been very well cast. In Debicki, Jordan looks and acts almost exactly as I imagined her. She is at once strikingly attractive and has an undeniably sexy and sultry quality to her. As for Mulligan, she is also incredibly attractive but rather than giving off the confidence of Debicki, she radiates an elegant vulnerability and emotional conflict in just the way I had hoped for. She is cast perfectly. A less obvious casting choice is that of Joel Edgerton as Tom Buchanan. He plays the part fantastically well but I suppose I’d say he was never how I pictured Tom. That’s not a problem though, as he really is excellent.

The early parts of the film revolve around the iconic party scenes described in such wonderful detail in the book. First Nick is taken to a party with Tom Buchanan’s mistress, her sister and some friends. The mistress is Myrtle Wilson (Isla Fisher). Her role is small but significant and once again, she is cast well. I will describe her role as “visually appealing” and move on. At the party, Nick gets drunk for one of only two times in his life. It’s well shot and the debauchery is very well captured, as is Nick’s fascination with New York.

The more famous party scenes though are those shot at the home of our main protagonist, Mr. Jay Gatsby. After hearing of the mysteries surrounding Gatsby, Nick gets an invite to his mansion for one of his huge parties. This is odd, because nobody gets invited to Gatsby’s – they just turn up. Every weekend, the whole of New York flocks there for the most grand shindigs you could imagine. Director Baz Luhrmann makes some interesting choices here. Inside, the place is bouncing and it looks spectacular. However grand the images you might have already conjured in your mind, this is where Luhrmann one-ups you. The dancers and performers look like they’re having the time of their lives and the filming style, following people around the mansion, does a great job of placing you at the party. It’s grand and ambitious and very well shot.

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The interesting bit here though is the choice of music. Where we might have expected some jazz, or at least some sounds more befitting of 1920’s New York, we instead get Jay-Z. I haven’t fully made my mind up on whether I like this or not. On the one hand, the music does the mood. It lends to the party atmosphere and you can well imagine young people drinking and dancing to it. The problem, though, is that using this music feels like a missed opportunity. It’s as if Luhrmann hadn’t decided whether he was making a modern re-telling of the story, or was showing his own interpretation of the book as it is. It should either be one or the other, and putting Jay-Z at a party in the 1920’s doesn’t feel right.

There is one song that has stuck with me since I saw the movie though, and it worked perfectly where it was used. The song is Will You Still Love Me? By Lana Del Rey, an artist I’ve previously had no feeling for at all. ‘Will you still love me when I’m no longer young and beautiful?’ she sings painfully and insecurely, instantly capturing the mood of the whole story and summing up the problems of several main characters and their intertwining stories.

When we’re done with the glitz and glamour of the party scenes we’re left to deal with the problems the characters have in their lives as they play out to their conclusion. It almost goes without saying that the story is brilliant and I think the movie does capture the heart of it quite well. The film cannot be faulted at all for it’s acting as the performers portray the conflict and troubled relationships they all suffer. Di Caprio is appropriately cool and suave and continues to place highly in my ‘favourite actors’ list, and he wears a pink suit as well as anybody can be expected to. The girls all add to the glamour and Tobey Maguire anchors the story competently.

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Overall, The Great Gatsby left me feeling a little confused. I definitely enjoyed the film and will no doubt see it again when it gets it’s blu-ray release later in the year. But is it a good adaptation? I really don’t know. On balance, the music is misjudged and it’s too big a part of the film to not mark it down for.  There are a couple of places where I feel the pace of the film is also misjudged. But overall, The Great Gatsby remains a classic tale, fit for any era, that Luhrmann tells well enough. Elevated above being average by a wonderful cast producing some wonderful performances, the latest version of Fitzgerald’s iconic work is a worthy telling of the story, but ultimately fails to capture some of the key elements that made me fall in love with the book.

7/10

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6 Responses to “The Great Gatsby”

  1. themovieuniverse May 21, 2013 at 09:48 #

    This is a great review. I think the problem is when comparing a modern day adaptation of an all time classic piece of literature there are always going to be things that people don’t like. I haven’t read the book yet, but I have seen this film and I found it to be very interesting. A lot of the time I like to watch the film and then read the book because otherwise I may have felt a little ripped off because what I imagined wasn’t happening.
    Overall though, I thought the quality of the film was great. Leonardo DiCaprio was superb as Gatsby and his performance changed throughout the film as we got deeper into his character and I found it intriguing to watch. Lurhmann’s direction I found to be superb too.

    • Richard Burns May 22, 2013 at 11:19 #

      Thanks for the comment and the compliment – very kind!
      I agree with your point that it can be difficult to compare a modern adaptation. I certainly acknowledge that some of the decisions I wasn’t so keen on were, at the very least, brave and I think Luhrmann generally has enough conviction to pull them off.
      Personally I’m not a fan of reading a book after a film as it changes how I envision the story, whereas the book can be treated as the source material and you can compare your own vision with the directors.

      Each to their own though. It’s certainly a film I enjoyed and will definitely watch again.

  2. biggreenjelly May 21, 2013 at 16:22 #

    I like that we came at the film from different angles and I’m glad I didn’t read the book beforehand. Having now read the first 20 pages (thank you), I don’t think anything could recreate the juicy depth (cue shovel) of Fitzgerald’s prose. Like you said though, it’s interesting that we picked up on many of the same points and gave the film the same score. I’m looking forward to seeing it again, this time without silly glasses on.

    • Richard Burns May 22, 2013 at 11:20 #

      An option not open to me. If I don’t watch it without silly glasses, I can’t see it at all 😦

      • biggreenjelly May 22, 2013 at 20:18 #

        Haha. Your glasses are cool. Too cool in fact.

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