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Film Review: The Great Gatsby


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Baz Luhrmann's highly anticipated adaptation of The Great Gatsby has finally hit screens, after being initially scheduled for release last Christmas.

With a soundtrack from Jay-Z and starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Carey Mulligan, Tobey Maguire and Joel Edgerton, the film certainly has some big names behind it, but does it live up to the genius of the novel?

Jay Gatsby is the enigmatic host of countless parties: guests aren't invited, they go. His parties are a whirlwind of cocktails, corrupt morals, glamorous frocks and rumours about the mysterious host. If anyone was to translate the excess and violent spontaneity of Gatsby's lifestyle through the prism of a film camera, it is Baz Luhrmann. For those who haven't read the novel, The Great Gatsby is narrated by Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire), a mid-western war veteran who finds himself living next door to the millionaire Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio). Nick is drawn to his ambiguous neighbour, whose past and present are intertwined with Nick's cousin, Daisy (Carey Mulligan).

Each sentence in Fitzgerald's novel flows with a lyricism and truthfulness about life. Unfortunately, this subtlety is somewhat lost in Luhrmann's adaptation which opens with a frenetic establishing of Gatsby's world. The camera (in all its 3D glory) swoops down skyscrapers, bounds off the luxurious mise-en-scène and cuts between characters as if lingering too long would reveal too much about them. Ironically, this is one of the film's major problems: Luhrmann seems less concerned with the deep heart of the source material and focuses on the feel of the age in which the novel is set.

The excess of the Jazz Age manifests itself in the film through the almost pop video aesthetic and energy and there can be no argument that the film doesn't look beautiful. In fact, it is stunning. Each frame dazzles with a sparkle as if the negatives were processed by Tiffany's and the green-screen theatrics help to set the tone wonderfully. Perhaps this was the director's intention: to create a world which doesn't really exist – Gatsby's parties are a show, a shallow front for his real desire to capture Daisy in a world of chaotic opulence.

There could be no other current actor to play Gatsby and DiCaprio does a sterling job of portraying one of American literature's greatest characters. Coupled with Mulligan, who provides a nicely tempered performance as the capricious Daisy, the central dynamics between the pair were nicely constructed. Their meeting in Nick's flower-filled living room was a dramatic moment, full of tension, but was a moment which should have been replicated and maintained throughout the film. Joel Edgerton's ill-tempered Tom Buchanan was well cast and tonally suited to juxtapose the character with Gatsby.

Ultimately, however, the emotional tenacity of the source material seemed to be suffocated by the visuals. Literary purists will not be won-over by the film but perhaps this isn't the point. Luhrmann's Gatsby is an interpretation, an element of the novel which captures the essence of an age where men wore beautiful shirts and the best a woman could do was to be a beautiful little fool. But the novel's real messages are somewhat lost in the aesthetic fervour of the film. Behind the three-piece suits and the glimmering jewels in Daisy's hair, there's little real comment. In interviews, Luhrmann has talked of the film's relevance to today's society, not just to the 1920s but there's a severe lack of comment in the film.

In the end, The Great Gatsby is an impressive spectacle, but a superficial spectacle at that. DiCaprio fits perfectly into the role of Gatsby but there is little real weight behind the camera zooms and digital magic. Fitzgerald's moral comments seem to be lost or merely acknowledged in passing, something which prevents the film from delivering an experience to match the novel. Gatsby may be great, but the film is far from it.

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