Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby review©

The grave of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Zelda Fit...

The grave of F. Scott Fitzgerald. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I had great expectations of Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby. After all, this was the man that shook up Romeo & Juliet. He transformed the celebrated tragedy into a film that mixed a fantasy world of inventive low art popular culture with Shakespeare’s high art language. He gave us slick beach city characters who we loved, lost and died with.

It is therefore unsurprising that Luhrmann selected The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, a tragedy no less compelling than Romeo & Juliet. The script by Luhrmann and Craig Pearce chose to tell a love story of the loved and lost rather than the tragedy of a man who spends his life seeking to imitate a world of men and women far beneath him. In the film, the hero Jay Gatsby pursues wealth to his death in order to be worthy of southern belle Daisy who flees after running over the mistress of her upper class husband Tom Buchanan, an adulterer who uses violence against his working class mistress.

F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby is a sophisticated novel because the whole premise is the antithesis of what it appears to be about. Society is merely a backdrop used to reveal the most valuable trait of a human being lies in their character not race or class. The latter threatens to undermine higher human values not strengthen them.

In Romeo + Juliet, Luhrmann introduces the story of feuding families forbidding love using TV reportage before he establishes enmities and friendships alongside Romeo’s (Leonardo DiCaprio) romantic ideas about love. Luhrmann does no such thing with The Great Gatsby. The story is told through the voiceover of a narrator Nick Carraway, played by Tobey Maguire. He is in therapy. This powerful idea could have served as a tool of self-reflection and innermost thoughts given that Carraway himself represents the hypocrisy of the society he judges. A writer who abandons the noble pursuit of writing in order to make money as a bond trader contrasts and conflicts with the hero who makes money to be loved and for love. The making of great drama is lost to an inconsistent character who threatens the film’s credibility. A number of times Carraway is shocked and surprised at good friend Tom Buchanan’s behaviour despite having been to Yale with him. A scene in the Waldorf hotel reveals that the purpose of the narrator is to act as a witness. The narrator knows Tom is a thug who beats up his mistress.  He also knows Daisy and Gatsby were once in love but does nothing other than express the same shock of others in the group when Gatsby almost attacks Buchanan after intense provocation. The narrator’s wide eyed childlike enchantment coupled with the use of exposition by Daisy’s friend Jordan Baker and Gatsby distance the audience further. It is hard to feel part of what is happening. I am certain this is the reason why Luhrmann actually uses the narrator to mention the feeling of within and without in the film.

The complex societal issues are not explored through the visuals, action or even dialogue. In one scene, the Buchanans discuss the need to stop the rise of the coloureds. Daisy later repeats the words. No explanation is given. Oddly, black characters are portrayed as servants, dancers, dreamers, musicians and prostitutes but are not introduced as talking feeling human beings. Contrast this with Harold Perrineau as the magical Mercutio Escalus in Luhrmann’s Romeo & Juliet. Yet F Scott Fitzgerald’s aspiration for human character values is crystal clear. We must learn to be worthy of ourselves first and only then can others not destroy us. The story is the basis of many a powerful myth. The book depicts such values through actions that raise or denigrate the human spirit. The idea that the nouveaux rich can be looked down upon while old money built on slavery and exploitative mercenary activities should be respected is and never was credible. It seems F Scott Fitzgerald knew the problems facing his characters. “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” Fitzgerald’s theme was ahead of his age. We still appear to be catching up.

The film sets were designed to dazzle and they did. But the upper class glitz and glam set against picturesque poverty is trapped in repressed 50s language and mannerisms suited to the Victorians. This is hardly the swinging or Roaring Twenties. Luhrmann’s use of clever visual metaphors carrying the family feuds forbidding love in Romeo and Juliet are elusive in The Great Gatsby. The film failed to move not only because of the way in which the story is told but the love story itself. I simply did not believe that Leonardo DiCaprio was Gatsby and Carey Mulligan was the woman who had set hearts racing and Gatsby had pursued at all costs. I wanted the living breathing Jay Gatsby not just brilliant remnants of Romeo + Juliet, The Aviator and Catch Me If You Can. None of the 3D film ad glossy moments or camera movements told me the human story of a beautiful woman who failed to live up to her devoted lover who sought comfort in his own skin through her and others.

I refer to Romeo & Juliet in this review because there can be no doubt that Luhrmann’s film was a triumph in how he used Shakespeare’s words to create a spirited sensitive story. Sadly The Great Gatsby film adaptation feels more like a scattered love story that actually never was.

Please follow the link to the wikipedia page for further information.

The reviewer is only interested in analysing Baz Luhrmann’s film adaptation of the screenplay not comparing other versions of The Great Gatsby because of an interest in his other work. All films are however a collaborative effort. I personally believe the adaptation of a book into film is not about words or the plot but the kernel of the drama contained within the story – the meaning behind the words and plot. My reviews explore what story is being told?


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