Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Film Review: The Great Gatsby (2013)

The Great Gatsby

Released: 2013

Directed by: Baz Luhrmann

Starring: Leo DiCaprio, Tobey McGuire, Carey Mulligan, Joel Edgerton.

Synopsis: An adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald's Long Island-set novel, where Midwesterner Nick Carraway is lured into the lavish world of his neighbor, Jay Gatsby. Soon enough, however, Carraway will see through the cracks of Gatsby's nouveau riche existence, where obsession, madness, and tragedy await. (from IMDB)


After an exhausting morning of running the Colour Run and an afternoon of Dungeons and Dragons, Tom and I decided to spend the rare work-free evening seeing a movie. Being exhausted we were hoping for a silly popcorn flick, but sadly Fast and Furious 6 isn't out until next week. And then I spotted The Great Gatsby. Hardly a popcorn film, but really, how could I turn down the controversial adaptation of one of my favourite books and films?

Baz Luhrmann's Great Gatsby has a lot of things going for it and a couple of fairly big things going against it. Overall though, I was pretty happy with the film and think that a lot of people's complaints are a result of that much loved "hating Luhrmann" hobby so many people seem to enjoy. It isn't perfect, and it definitely isn't my favourite incarnation of that story (the book will always win that prize) but I am also super happy with how it turned out and some of the additions and changes Luhrmann made.

First off, it's a beautiful film. I mean of course it is, Luhrmann has always made visual spectaculars and this is definitely no exception. The set pieces are big, glittering and captivating, the costumes are amazing, and the grounds around Gatsby and Nick's houses are too die for. If I could live in Nick's little cottage for the rest of my life I would die a very, very happy woman. But aside from that, the visual choice to depict the flashbacks as tinted film was inspired - it added a romance and nostalgia to those memories as well as being visually arresting. I also liked the occasional addition of actual text on the screen as Nick narrated the story - it didn't always fit and probably could have been cut down, but I liked it as a nod to Fitzgerald's writing and some of it was really creatively incorporated.

As beautiful as the film was, this was also where it slipped up. Luhrmann's captivation with beauty and making things theatrical and grandiose works perfectly in some scenes but also overshadows the real heart and soul of the story. Amidst the hedonism and ridiculous Gatsby parties, the actual story is very small and contained, a lot of it is told through stolen glances and brief meetings heavy with meaning . Framing it with huge crane shots of New York and of Gatsby's butter yellow car as it races through Long Island makes it really hard to pay attention to what the story is really trying to say. The two greatest scenes in the film (and luckily these are also two of the most important), the confrontation scene during the heatwave and the pool scene at the climax, are also the smallest scenes in the film. The confrontation between Gatsby, Daisy and Tom takes place in a tiny hotel room and the scene is electric with emotion. it's claustrophobic and hot and there is no escape for any of the characters. It's beautifully shot and the scene is decorated perfectly, but it never takes away from the actual story that the scene is unpacking. Similarly, the final scene in the pool is rare in how quiet it is, and how at peace Gatsby appears. The colours of the pool, the shining sun, the events that had just unfolded and are about to unfold...it's heavy with foreboding and consequence, but it's superb in its simplicity. Luhrmann has what it takes to tell perfectly contained and vibrant stories as well as theatrical show pieces, I just wish he knew how to balance the two better.

And now for a potentially controversial opinion. I loved Tobey McGuire as Nick and I really liked the addition of the sanatorium as a means to narrate the story. The thing is, when reading The Great Gatsby, it doesn't matter where Nick is or why or to whom he's telling his story. But in cinema to tack on narration without a purpose is shoddy film-making. People disagree about what Gatsby is all about, but one of the reasons the book resonates with me is Nick's story. To me the story is as much about Nick as it is about Gatsby and Daisy. He crosses such an intense arc in so short a period of time, from anticipation to heartbreak, from naiveté to realism. It makes sense that such shocking and world-crashing events would not leave him unscathed, simply narrating this story to his grand-kids at bedtime. He is in a sanatorium for alcoholism, depression and anxiety and retelling the story of his summer, of Gatsby, is his catharsis. it gives a purpose for the narration but it also gives us a look at how the events shook Nick to his very core. And I like this, very much. As for Tobey McGuire, people seem to have this weird hatred for him that I just don't get it. I think by and large he was doomed to be criticised regardless of how he portrayed Nick. Me however, I thought he handled the retelling of Nick perfectly, managing to convey the "within and without" aspect of Nick with a subtlety that I felt was lacking from some of the other performances. He brought life to the narration and narrated with such care and deliberation that I truly believed he could have written the words. By the end of the film I had unabashedly fallen in love with him.

As for the rest of the cast, I thought DiCaprio did really well, although personally I liked the quietness of Robert Redford's interpretation over DiCaprio's more emotional version. There were a couple of close-up shots of Leo which could have been taken from Romeo and Juliet, he looked so young and vulnerable and in those moments he broke my heart. Carey Mulligan was good as Daisy, and while Mia Farrow will always be my Daisy I do think Daisy as a character was better realised in this film. She isn't simply a shallow and materialistic woman, there's a depth of vulnerability and self-awareness which the acting choices of Carey Mulligan combined with the narration present to the audience. And the mostly Australian supporting cast, Joel Edgerton (Tom), Isla Fisher (Myrtle), Jason Clarke (George Wilson) et al, were incandescent in their roles. Amidst all the successes and the failures, the championing of Australian actors is Baz Luhrmann's greatest achievement, and our film industry owes him a great deal.

Finally, I just wanted to touch on the soundtrack. Aside from one song playing during a party sequence I thought the music choices perfectly fit with the film. Jack White during the final car scene home from New York gave me shivers, Lana Del Ray was perfect for Daisy and Gatsby's reunion, the Jay-Z track, infused with a trumpeter on a New York fire escape worked really well. They reflected the mood of the scene, you didn't notice that they were anachronistic (not that it matters since it's all non-diegetic sound) because it connected you to the characters and the story before you. Also, the XX song playing over the credits was the most perfect credits song in all movie history ever. EVER. It perfectly encapsulated the quiet and insular story in a way that Luhrmann wasn't always capable of presenting, but quite clearly understood.

Baz Luhrmann's The Great Gatsby isn't perfect and it loses focus every once in awhile, but amidst the flaws the pulse of the original Gatsby beats away. I might have complained about the crane shots distracting from the true story, but they are still spectacular and the larger than life story of Jay Gatsby, Daisy Buchanan and Nick Carraway, a story of transformation, love and deceit set within the New York backyards of the Old Money and Nouveau Riche is both one for the ages and for the big screen.


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