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The Great Gatsby

Film & TV

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I really wanted to love this film.  As a fan of both F Scott Fitzgerald’s novel and Baz Luhrmann’s lavish productions, I put on the 3D glasses and sat back full of anticipation. Perhaps this enthusiasm set me up for disappointment, but by the end I couldn’t help feeling the film had missed the mark.

Luhrmann brings his characteristic decadent flair to Gatsby and, to his credit, the plot follows that of the book relatively closely.  All the iconic scenes are present and sumptuously accounted for, and the famous lines stand out just as beautifully in the film as they do in the novel.

The story is told from the perspective of Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire), an outsider invited into a world of obscene wealth and privilege in pre-depression New York.  He moves into a modest house on Long Island and finds himself living next door to the young millionaire Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio), an elusive character harbouring a long-standing passion for shallow and flighty Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan), who is unhappily married to bigoted playboy Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton).  Tragedy ensues.

The casting is brilliant, with all the major actors giving impressive performances; a difficult task when asked to do justice to such famous literary characters. DiCaprio proved a standout as Gatsby, managing to skilfully convey the complexities of the character and balancing his affected self-invention and self-delusion with great charisma.

The sets and costumes are appropriately opulent, as expected from production and costume designer Catherine Martin.  Even if the plot leaves you cold, there is still much to keep you interested aesthetically in this film.  The sets and costumes are a stunning homage to art deco design and the flamboyance of the roaring ’20s.  Martin is definitely one of the brightest stars of this film.

In fact, there is so much going on stylistically that I found the 3D projection completely unnecessary; in fact, it detracted from my enjoyment.  This is especially so in the first half, when the decadence of the jazz age is conveyed through Gatsby’s immense parties – the screen is so crowded with frenetic action that it’s impossible to focus.  It wasn’t until the second half, when the revelry ceased and the narrative finally took centre-stage, that I felt Fitzgerald’s presence start to emerge.

Perhaps the best way to see The Great Gatsby is to be free of any expectations set up by having read the book.  Despite Luhrmann’s close adherence to the novel’s plot and dialogue, the elegance and depth of Fitzgerald’s writing is clearly a challenge to translate into film.  The issues of class, race and the social hollowness of the era’s excesses are lightly touched on, but the film’s thematic emphasis clearly lies in illuminating the material extravagance of New York’s jazz age.  If this was his objective, then Luhrmann has done his job well and with trademark.

The Great Gatsby is showing in cinemas now.

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