Seemingly destined for film maudit status from conception, Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby is as divisive a picture as is produced by the contemporary mainstream. Lensed in 3D, and scored by Jay-Z, Luhrmann’s film is an overt, affronted picture, equal parts fascinating and unwatchable; it’s an eye-sore, but compulsive viewing. The whole experience is summed up by a line uttered by one character of another in the film itself – “She was the most frightening person I’d ever seen. But I couldn’t stop looking at her”.
Luhrmann renders his interpretation of Fitzgerald’s Long Island via a theoretically perverse digital canvas. It’s an artificial landscape, filtered to the extreme, to the extent that it resembles some kind of part-live action, part-motion capture scenario, and yet it somehow actually works. As per the leanings of the plot, excess rules. It seeps out of every pore of the film. Of course this makes for a solid analogy of the Hollywood machine itself, with it’s reliance on new technologies to push reality to breaking point (via components such as CGI and 3D) in order for it to stand out on an increasingly busy platform of entertainment media. Luhrmann is aware of these connections (Gatsby is an actor after all), and makes light of the nature of the power of illusion throughout.
Told from the perspective of Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire), Gatsby’s neighbour and the connective figure between each of the characters in the film, it’s over thirty minutes before we meet Leonardo DiCaprio’s illusive Jay Gatsby. He makes his entrance while a piece of music that riffs on Johann Sebastian Bach’s Toccata and Fugue plays in the background, a song with obvious associations to Count Dracula. DiCaprio’s Gatsby recalls Orson Welles in part, with the confident gusto of the two men making for obvious mention, and he comes over as incredibly likeable, his popularity amongst peers convincing. It’s a surprisingly layered performance, given the on-the-nose nature of much of the film, and adds the necessary weight for the whole thing to not spiral completely out of control. Maguire, an actor who’s had a quiet couple of years also turns in a confident performance, with his Carraway, the observer of the piece, and as such the perfect literary channel for the audience. His constant reminder that he is both “Within and without” is apt for the viewer too.
Elsewhere, an extensive supporting ensemble impresses, with newcomer Elizabeth Debicki particularly memorable, while Joel Edgerton, channeling Albert Finney, makes for a dastardly villain type, his “old money” moustache-twirling husband-wronged, the actors hammiest role to date. The key non-Gatsby element to the cast is Carey Mulligan’s Daisy Buchanan. The actress shines, with the aforementioned keen aesthetic style lending well to emphasise the encouraged, romantic tones. Pivotally, the relationship between Daisy and Gatsby convinces, and provides the film with an affecting emotional handle.
Luhrmann, while not in the same league as the following filmmakers, operates on similar terms to figures like Jacques Tati, or Wes Anderson, or even Robert Bresson, in so much that his is one whose work requires a “learning” of a language in order for it to truly be accepted. His work, and with an emphasis on The Great Gatsby, is ultimately sincere to its own rules, and, while undoubtably flawed, it makes for a fascinating case study nonetheless.