Adapting F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel seems fraught with danger, as film critics and lovers of the book will sharpen their barbs to fire at any such film sticking its head above the parapet. Critics it has had a plenty, but Baz Luhrmann’s film is something wondrous to look at. The recreation of the decadence and excess of Gatsby’s West Egg parties in the Roaring Twenties are filled with noise and colour, as are the lurid, hot and sweaty scenes in New York City. All separated by the wonderful contrast of poverty and desolation of a clinker-filled hinterland – the “valley of ashes” – between the two.
Gatsby tells the story of Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire), a struggling writer turned bonds salesman, who moves into the lodge next door to the excess that is the mansion of the mysterious Jay Gatsby (Leonardo di Caprio) – a man with such a murky and rumour-filled history that he could have been the 1920’s Austin Powers. Literally just across the bay from them in East Egg lives n’er do well rich ‘jock’ Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton) and his beautiful but flighty wife Daisy (Carey Mulligan). The film centres on Carraway’s position as the middle man in a fraught and ultimately tragic love triangle between the other three leads.
So what of those leads?
Well, Tobey Maguire truly impresses, with a depth of acting that anchors the film and brings to the narrative the right sense of initial naivety turning to disillusionment. Curiously, I never think of Maguire – other than the Spiderman films I guess – as being a lead actor – – and whilst he has the majority of the lines and the screen time in this film, he would probably be classed as Supporting Actor for this. Hopefully a nod at the Oscars awaits this role.
The standout performance of the film though is Leonardo di Caprio as Jay Gatsby. What an actor, what a screen presence, what a STAR (in the old fashioned sense of the word)! His initial introduction as the smiling and hugely confident Gatsby just left a broad grin on my face. And the scene where he loses his temper – going from urbane to animal and back again – is a masterpiece. And this is maybe one of the problems with the film, in that diCaprio is just SO GOOD that everyone else (perhaps with the exception of Tobey Maguire) seems in comparison less persuasive.
This might be my problem with Carey Mulligan. Ah, Carey Mulligan. Since she first appeared as a young teenager in the BBC adaptation of Bleak House, and then shone as Sally Sparrow in the classic “Blink” episode of Doctor Who, she was clearly an acting force to be reckoned with. It is really great to see her blossom onto the worldwide stage over the last couple of years, and in Gatsby she gets the chance to pull off probably her most challenging role yet. But does she nail it? Well – nearly, but not quite in my view. She is both adorable and has emotionally charged scenes with diCaprio, but it felt to me that she was always ‘Carey Mulligan playing Daisy Buchanan’. Which of course, she was – how unfair! – but as an audience we need to be able to not let the acting get in the way. As well as having to act against the premiere league force of diCaprio, perhaps the real problem here is that Saint Carey has come with a halo of expectation to her performances, and that gets in the way sometimes.
The comparison with diCaprio is particularly stark with Joel Edgerton playing Tom Buchanen. The story (“no spoilers sweetie”) demands that he be a match and more to Gatsby, and for me Edgerton is never really credible in that position. It probably needed more of the acting budget to be spent on this role to get another heavyweight name of diCaprio’s stature to go up against him – Gary Oldman? Edward Norton? Christian Bale maybe?
Much criticism seems to have vested in Baz Luhrmann for his use of modern music and the vulgar excess of some of his scenes. I think this is unfair. The music (by Craig Armstrong, of Love Actually fame) works really well and as for the colour and noise, a) it’s trying to depict the excesses of 1920’s New York, and b) its a Baz Luhrmann film for God’s sake – what did you expect?? Fortunately, it reigns in some of the madness of Moulin Rouge – the first 10 minutes of which, before you get into the vibe, are of “WTF” dimensions. In Gatsby, some of Luhrmann’s camera shots are of the ‘how the hell did they do that’ variety, with (presumably) really clever use of CGI to make some of the scenes seem real, and yet, not quite real. A good example are the shots of the party-goers cars racing up the drive to Gatsby’s mansion.
Overall, this is a really good and entertaining film – go and see it. Above all it provided a good name for my daughter’s new cat – welcome to the world Mr Gatsby!
Fad Rating: FFFF.