'Imagination will take you everywhere'
Baz Luhrmann’s ‘The Great Gatsby’ has caused a battle to erupt amongst the critics, however the majority have thrown rocket grenades on the latest film adaption of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel – see Phillip French’s review for the Guardian, and Anthony Quinn’s review for The Independent.
My own view is lodged somewhere in the middle; like life, the film has good and bad parts. However my main consensus is that Luhrmann’s heavy focus on the hyperbolic representation of the roaring 20’s somewhat masks the depth of the real story. Over the top, would be an understatement to describe this film. Despite not having read the original novel, I felt as if something was missing from the film’s narrative – yes there is immaculate attention to detail with expensive costumes, props and spectacular scenery, but I wanted to claw my way through the aesthetic to discover the grit that lies beneath.
The first half of the film was a whistle-stop tour in which the viewer was bombarded with the setting, history, characters and basic storyline, all of which collided together in the form of a promotional trailer. Fast paced editing, abrupt cuts and a huge array of quick and swooping camera movements made the viewer feel on edge; I was unable to settle down and actually engage with the story. Instead I got a headache and felt a bit dizzy. It was incredibly fragmented and lacked any sense of continuity. The storyline wasn’t allowed to just play out naturally and reveal itself subtly – instead the viewer was literally force-fed. However some will argue that it is this ‘in your face’ energetic editing style which enhances the wild, hedonistic and party lifestyle of the characters. This style combined with the 3D certainly achieves the daring statement Luhrmann wanted to create, albeit through loud visuals which constantly shout ‘Look at me!’.
Someone please answer me this question: were the special effects meant to look fake? Everything seemed to look fake – from the perfect flowers in Gatsby’s garden to his grand palace and the fireworks which exploded upon his entrance. Even the old style footage which injected a rare slice of authenticity to the film, was fragmented and didn’t flow effectively. It appeared as if everything had been filmed in a studio or special set and then manipulated during post-production. The verisimilitude was diabolical. This lack of realism made it almost impossible for the viewer to connect to the diegetic world which was being presented.
However in defence, the fake-looking visuals reinforces the false illusion of Jay Gatsby himself. Maybe Luhrmann’s intention for the editing was to not only echo but enhance Gatsby’s façade; cementing the ‘golden mirage’ which he creates through his wealth and wild, show-boating parties. “In his blue gardens men and girls came and went like moths among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars.” It is this sense of excess and otherworldly glamour which offers the audience an escape from reality, which they cherish yet alas never experience.
But who is the real hero of the story? Gatsby the cheating bootlegger with humble beginnings and a hopeful heart, or Nick Carraway the softly spoken, honest but in-experienced narrator? I believe the ultimate hero is undoubtedly, Carraway; he was the only true and genuine person in a world polluted by lies, greed and image obsessed people. His pure and innocent nature forms a juxtaposition with the society he’s sucked into. It’s his honesty which distances him from the temptations of glitz and glamour – yes he experiences it but he still doesn’t let it affect him. He is the outsider looking in, simply witnessing the destruction of others. In the end it is the death of Gatsby which really makes him go off the rails. Carraway represents the viewer; we are the voyeurs, unable to connect with the world we are watching, just shocked and in awe of the unbelievable lives we are viewing. “I was within and without. Simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life.”
Most of the critics argue that Carraway’s story (set in a sanatorium as he’s trying to recover from alcoholism and depression) and narration is a ‘silly framing device’, however I like the idea of him trying to piece together the past (cue flashbacks) and in doing so regaining his life by writing a novel of his experience. His delicate and articulate voiceover adds much-needed depth to the synthetic, attention-seeking visuals. Tobey Maguire has done a spectacular job.
In terms of the other characters, Carey Mulligan’s portrayal of the tortured and weak Daisy Buchanan is sealed solely with her hauntingly sad eyes which perfectly captures the character’s turmoil, longing and confusion. Leonardo DiCaprio also perfects the role of Gatsby, despite the weight on his shoulders. He is suave, effortless and confident, yet manages to display Gatsby’s hidden insecurity and child-like desperation to reverse time. However his over use of Gatsby’s idiolect phrase ‘Old sport’ was rather irritating – every other sentence contained the phrase!
The aspect of the film I really admired was Luhrmann’s integration of a modern soundtrack which modernises the overall portrayal, thus creating a successful juxtaposition with the depiction of the 1920s. Jay Z’s and Will.i.am’s booming beats seem to amplify the adrenaline pumping party atmosphere, thus conveying the ultimate hedonistic soiree. I particularly loved Florence and The Machine and Lana Del Rey’s ghostly anthems which heightens the melancholy edge of the film.
Some say Luhrmann’s film tramples on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s exquisite prose, however I counter this; the prose is enhanced by the way it’s effortlessly written across the screen in parts of the film, thus placing emphasis on the narrator’s thoughts and paying tribute to the majestic creations of Fitzgerald. One of the few positives about this film is that it’s made me want to read the book in order to decipher the whole story.
To summarise; the lavish costumes (beautifully designed by Catherine Martin and Mucci Prada), props, scenery and editing all seemed to collide into a somewhat messy car crash filled with decadence and oozing with luxury. The tragic end was a simple result of the hedonistic and selfish lifestyle which people carelessly threw about in order to climb the social ladder, which doesn’t sound too dissimilar to today’s image obsessed society. However I think the true message of the narrative is an important one: money can’t buy you happiness. Gatsby leant the hard way.