I feel like I have two opinions of this film. The first, an opinion of the film as it stands, just a film that one can go and see for some amusement. The second is my view of this film as an interpretation of The Great Gatsby that “classic American novel” we’ve all heard too much about and I happen to have been studying for the last six months.
Perhaps surprisingly I think that this film is far better as an adaptation than it is as a film. Allow me to explain. Throughout the film the visuals are highly ‘polished’; there are great sweeping shots through computer generated cities and bays. Flashbacks appear dramatically in clouds and the whole world seems to be over-saturated and unrealistically in focus. So, much as I would love this film to have been exempt from all criticism, this is often very vulgar and unpleasant to watch. However when taken in accompaniment with Nick Carraway as the unreliable narrator of these events it seems that this gaudy, slick atmosphere is a by-product of his reaction and an intrinsically important part of his narrative. The story is, after all, the memoirs of a man utterly disgusted with the high-living loose-moral glamorous society of New York in the 20’s. This vile, over-airbrushed and slimy image is exactly what Carraway remembers of his time among the casually rich and philandering.
This is not to say that the film is an exact replica of the book. Liberties are certainly taken, most sadly in the reduction of Jordan Baker’s role to a near cameo. The film takes an aspect of the book and expands it to a massive scale. Suddenly he story is barely about Gatsby and Daisy but more about Carraway’s own state of mind and his friendship with this enigmatic millionaire. Its not a new approach, but it is a thoroughly and intriguingly executed interpretation of Fitzgerald’s novel. The film seems to position itself solely as a vehicle to question the very foundation of the story it is telling, which certainly makes for an odd viewing experience as you realise that you are being captivated by a story that may not even be true. With Tobey Maguire pointedly cast because he resembled F. Scott Fitzgerald and additionally the systematic emphasis on his blue eyes, matching those of Dr TJ Eckleberg it is clear that this film has an awful lot to say about it’s own narrator. If “God sees everything” as is so often said in reference to TJ Eckleberg then we can only wonder who this “God” is. The creator, the shaper of the world, the writer through whose eyes we see the story unfold. The one that can, at will, erase a name or face from the story as it suits and indeed the only one who knows all of the facts.
While I don’t begrudge any director a few trademarks or motifs it seems as though Baz Luhrmann has borrowed rather too extensively from his previous work, most obviously Moulin Rouge. Of course there are similarities in theme and plot but there is no need for Baz Luhrman’s Klipspringer to resemble Moulin Rouge’s resident mad musician Audrey so much. Additionally the portrayal of Nick Carraway as an intelligent bereaved writer is acceptable until he too picks up his typewriter to write about freedom, truth, beauty and love. It seems that the line between “a coherent body of work” and “films that are companion pieces” has been crossed somewhere along the line.
Apart from Maguire’s Carraway the film is blessed with stunning performances from, well, from everybody. DiCaprio’s Gatsby is tragically naïve and childish, a boy lost in a world of gangsters and money and should be suitably recognised for his nuanced performance. The effortless way in which Gatsby lights up in the presence of Daisy is caught perfectly by DiCaprio. Gatsby seems physically younger, lighter and more carefree at the mere mention of her name. For her part, Carey Mulligan does not fall into the trap of making Daisy a cardboard cut-out airhead. Some of her reactions are genuinely gut-wrenching. She is a lost, naïve and scared child among the others but she is still undoubtedly present.