Turning a literary classic into a film is a bold undertaking, and one that director Baz Luhrmann has not shied away from in the past. When approaching The Great Gatsby, especially after having read and loved the novel, it seems necessary to suspend preconceptions and expectations surrounding what the film should be like.
As a fan of Fitzgerald, I had high expectations for this film, and was worried after hearing several bad reviews. Within the first ten minutes of the movie, I had decided that I did not like it. The opening scenes were an overwhelming pastiche of mixed imagery, some of which was modern and vivid, some of which was more 1920’s in feel. The images seemed tacky and artificial.
However, I tried to keep an open mind throughout the movie, and by the end I was completely enchanted by it. There were aspects of the film that I felt detracted from the experience, but as a whole the film was impressive, and certainly artistic.
If you are expecting something realistic and concrete, you will likely not enjoy this movie. It was more surreal than real. The images were dreamlike and fantastic.
The movie was reflexive in that it was a story that was aware of being a story: Nick Carraway’s handwriting often drifted across the screen, reminding the viewer that the story is told from his memory and his perspective. This was an interesting device; just when you find yourself lost in the fast-pace, gaudy reality of Gatsby’s world, you are forced to take a step back, the effect being that the viewer feels as though they are simultaneously “within and without,” as Nick would say.
The soundtrack was unexpected, but worked really well. With music by Jay-Z, Florence and the Machine and Fergie, there was a mix of modern and 1920’s feel to the movie, which actually seemed to work.
In his 1996 version of “Romeo and Juliet,” Luhrmann likewise employed a mix of old and new, maintaining Shakespeare’s original lines, but in a more modern setting. This is the way he seemed to approach Gatsby: it was maybe not completely true to the era, or exactly what Fitzgerald saw when he was writing it, but he took the novel and made something new that was still true to the feel of the book.
The casting was perfect. At first I found myself thinking, “this is either very bad acting, or very good acting.” I eventually decided on the latter.
At first I mistook the insincerity of the characters for insincerity of the actors. But I was mistaken. Yes, what they said was very superficial and over-done, but I soon realized that this was purposeful. Their insincerity and superficiality were the point.
Leonardo DiCaprio captured the complexities of Jay Gatsby, who is on the surface suave and impressive, but has a lonely and desperate side that emerges over the course of the story.
Carey Mulligan took on the beautiful but vulnerable Daisy Buchanan, and had the audience as smitten with her as the other characters in the movie. Although her actions were selfish and manipulative, she was able to embody a certain childishness that allowed the audience to love and forgive her.
Toby Mcguire has often played the lonely outsider, which worked well for the character of Nick Carraway, who was perpetually “without and within” the hectic and uncontrolled lifestyle of New York in the 20’s.
One interesting decision was to have the story framed by Nick Carraway in a psychiatric hospital, recovering from a myriad of disorders including alcoholism, depression and anxiety. I see that the purpose of this was to highlight the consequences and the fallout from the lifestyle portrayed, but at times it seemed a little preachy.
Some of the scenes in which Nick was talking to his doctor seemed somewhat redundant, at least in terms of plot. For example, he states at the beginning that “back then, we all drank too much,” and that he became “disgusted” with New York. To me, this was implicit, and could have remained unstated and exposed through the action, rather than through Nick’s narration. Although at times I felt that this framing took away from the story, I will say that it added the feel of nostalgia that is very present in the novel.
Certain screenshots and camera angles brilliantly captured the almost omnipotence of Mr. Gatsby, whose identity is not revealed for the first few scenes of the movie.
Gatsby is at first only seen in glimpses; his silhouette is often seen behind curtains, a hand donning a ring with a small daisy etched on it, always observing but never observed. Even the audience was made to feel as if they were being observed.
The fact that his identity is withheld for the first few scenes builds up the mystery that surrounds Gatsby, the audience wondering about his secrets as much as the guests at his parties.
When his face is finally revealed, the introduction is almost comically exaggerated, with Gatsby turning in slow motion to face Nick, fireworks exploding in the background in an almost pseudo “love-at-first-sight” scene. I couldn’t help being dazzled with him, like all the other characters in the movie.
It is easy to critique this film by saying that it is not historically accurate, or one hundred percent faithful to the novel, which is true. However, as a whole, I think that the film captured the essence of the novel and of the era, if not the details.
The overall experience of The Great Gatsby film was an overwhelming of the senses, making it easy to lose oneself in the lavish, fast-paced lifestyle of New York’s filthy rich in the 1920’s, wondering whether or not it is true that “a little party never killed nobody.”