CINEMA: News Weekly
Gatsby makes The Great Gatsby
, June 22, 2013
Baz Luhrmann’s 3D screen adaptation (rated M) of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby is reviewed by Symeon Thompson, who dedicates his piece to the memory of Christopher Pearson, who died on June 9.
I first heard of Baz Luhrmann’s 3D version of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby while at the Australian Film, Television and Radio School. It was hard not to. He was next door at Fox Studios and employing many of the school’s students, past and present.
My first thought was intrigue. The Great Gatsby is one of the most still and delicate of novels. It owes its reputation to Fitzgerald’s lifestyle and his diamond-like prose. Its power is found in its narration more so than in the events it describes, making it difficult to film.
He may be a master of cinematic re-presentation, but Baz doesn’t do delicacy. American critics like calling him “mad” — but his earnestness gives him an edge for audacious adaptations.
His Romeo + Juliet (1996) was a triumph, bringing out the bawdy vibrancy of the Bard’s text, and was more “truth-full” than many productions. It was loathed by some critics, who would sooner retain their status as culture’s “high priests” than acknowledge Everyman’s capacity to appreciate art.
Admittedly, Baz cannot really produce a coherent original story. Apart from Strictly Ballroom (1992), his attempts on that score — Moulin Rouge! (2001) and Australia (2008) — delight the senses, but dull the mind.
With these ideas spinning through my mind, much like Baz’s camerawork, I saw The Great Gatsby. In 2D, it was hollow and uneven. Despite being one of the most faithful adaptations ever made, it seemed empty.
The framing is the greatest difference. Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) is writing his reflections as part of therapy, thus claiming him as Fitzgerald’s stand-in. Baz enlarges upon this by referring to him as a “writer” — something not that present in the novel.
3D made for something vastly different. The pyrotechnics are more powerful, and the film has more depth. One is overwhelmed by the vision, such that its underwhelming yarn is made intoxicating.
Hip-Hop/Rapper Jay-Z’s hip-hop/electro-swing soundtrack is surprisingly effective. This decision, like that of the swearing in HBO’s TV series Deadwood, is that since what was once shocking is so no longer, then by providing something current, the “shock” value is retained.
The clothes are a delight, their stylish timelessness an indictment of today’s bland dress sense — as are the buildings, the cars and the manners. Decadence is different in a world where the surfaces force one to maintain standards. It doesn’t alter the gravity of sin and ugliness, but it changes how a society deals with it.
This film is not an historical re-presentation of “The Jazz Age”. It is a hyper-realistic one, an image of a world as seen in its dreams — much like The Name of the Rose, where the Middle Ages is stylised to such an extent that it is unreal, and yet more “real” than a simply historically accurate production.
I was reminded of Orson Welles, the topic of one of Fitzgerald’s stories, and not just because Gatsby’s entrance is like Harry Lime’s in The Third Man. His cinema was incredible, such that their threadbare narratives mattered little.
Like Baz, Welles was a master adapter, who turned third-rate yarns into first-rate films. When adapting masterpieces, like Macbeth, he made movies more contemporary than many “updatings” — such as Geoffrey Wright’s Aussiefied version, now viewed in schools.
Welles was a showman, despite charges of being “highbrow”. He made ripping good yarns — on stage, screen and radio. He also knew that movies were the medium not for ideas but for actions.
The acting and the storyline are almost superfluous to Baz’s The Great Gatsby. Their impact depends on whether or not you’re drunk on the aural-visual dynamism. If drunk, the performances are superb. If sober, one is more inclined to ask: how can such people be real? And why should we care?
At one level, The Great Gatsby is about the indulgences of those with money, who aren’t that nice or self-aware. Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton) is a brute, but an aristocratic one. Daisy (Carey Mulligan) is “delicate” and unconscious of consequences. Nick Carraway “prefers to watch”, rather than live. Myrtle Wilson, Tom’s mistress (Isla Fisher), is vulgar and voluptuous.
Meyer Wolfsheim (Amitabh Bachchan) is wonderfully wolf-like — a wolf in wolf’s clothing, but seductive and charming. And Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio) is an astonishing self-creation, all charm and generosity, covering anxiety and amoral determination.
This is The Great Gatsby, rendered in the style of Gatsby himself, overloaded with extravagance, inspiring awe. Lacking the delicacy of Fitzgerald, it shows the self-indulgence of the story, and the era.
This is no sharply-cut classical diamond, but an overwrought Baroque pearl. It is a delight to behold — like the fizziest of champagne, laced with pure adrenaline, but lacking the sensual stillness of the novel.
Will it last? Who knows? Who cares? It must be experienced to be believed.
Symeon Thompson is a member of the Film Critics Circle of Australia (FCCA).