I’ve never written a film review before, which you will probably realise once you’ve finished reading today’s post. The closest I’ve got to writing anything remotely similar is a book report at school – the classic summer holiday homework which is forced upon primary school children and met with the same overwhelming hatred as eating vegetables and enduring Sunday night bath time before school the next day.
However, last Friday evening I went to see The Great Gatsby, arguably one of the most anticipated films of this year so far, and since then I have been contemplating writing a little bit about it, especially since the movie has already been subject to much criticism both hot and cold from every possible direction. I had no intention of writing about the film before I actually watched it, so I’m trying my very best to work from memory. If you would like to read a more accurate review, I recommend giving Robbie Collin’s one a go, especially as it is far more articulately written than mine.
Adapting a novel to a screen play is a bit like tightrope walking: not everybody can do it, baby steps are a must, parts are plain sailing and wobbles are always guaranteed along the way. What you’re greeted with when you reach the other side is another matter entirely.
With a trio of past cinematic catastrophes behind it, Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby hit screens this week and I for one was more skeptical than most. Indeed, it is baffling that for such a famous novel, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic text has never truly reached its full potential on the big screen after falling short in the 1926, 1949 and 1974 adaptations. The transition from text to film has never been easy, granted – lines are messed about with and there are almost always scenes missing. It was too late for Gatsby’s “third time lucky”, but I had been left wondering whether Luhrmann had found fortune in the number four.
The novel is in actual fact a personal favourite of mine. I had fallen head over heels with Fitzgerald’s sensational interpretation of the glitz and the glamour, the frivolity of money and the enchanting, laissez-faire demeanor of the post-war generation. But beneath the surface, 1920s America was corrupt, decadent and damaged. For this film to be a success, a director would have to fully capture the density of this premise and simultaneously deliver a storyline of great complexity. No pressure then.
The film is, without a doubt, an optical masterpiece. Luhrmann’s utilisation of colour and texture is so gorgeous that it is difficult not to appreciate the meticulousness and attention-to-detail which clearly went into formulating such authentic costumes, props and scenery. Fitzgerald’s synaesthetic language is enough to make you fall in love with this fantastical, if contrived, environment, but it is Luhrmann who brings these imaginings to life for a modern audience.
And yet to quote the book, “life is much more successfully looked at from a single window”. This film is not without fault, and character portrayal is a big problem. Tobey Maguire’s Nick Carraway was good, his awkwardness captured well, but Luhrmann’s decision to place the character in a different setting at the start of the film just did not work.
Carey Mulligan’s performance was equally problematic. Fitzgerald’s Daisy is selfish, ignorant and careless, but with Mulligan we see a defenseless, confused woman, trapped in a loveless, violent marriage and warped by the materialism around her. She becomes the victim rather than the perpetrator, despite the fact she is the one in the driving seat, quite literally, initiating the demise of certain characters. The Great Gatsby is supposed to be the great American novel without any truly great characters, but this is something Luhrmann clearly chose to overlook.
I admit I didn’t mind this movie. It is, however, Luhrmann’s controversial approach which leaves me wondering whether I would have enjoyed this film more if it had been under the direction of somebody else. Indeed, it would have been interesting to see a focus on the corruption of American society, or the role of Nick as secret keeper. It is important to remember that Gatsby is not just a love story.
Without Luhrmann, on the other hand, would this film lose authenticity without the stunning visual beauty which this director captured so impeccably? I very much doubt it, and we cannot have it both ways.
At least with previous film adaptations in mind, it is without question that Luhrmann’s Gatsby is “worth the whole damn bunch put together”.