The Great Gatsby


Reviewed by: Anne-Katrin Titze

The Great Gatsby
"The closer Luhrmann stays to the spirit of Fitzgerald and the more he trusts his cast, the better the result."

Baz Lurmann's wicked The Great Gatsby, after the famed green light in 3D signals 'go', drops us off at a sanitarium, invented for the film, in which Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire, better than ever) attempts to cure his alcoholism and tries to come to terms with what happened in the summer of 1922. Presented with a gold pen, he is told to write. Neither the place, nor the cure of this framing device exist in the novel and Luhrmann seems to go for some Fitzgerald biography (he died an alcoholic, at age 44) meeting a snowy Citizen Kane onto a Shutter Island hybrid.

Carraway starts by recounting the tale of his cousin Daisy, her husband Tom, and a mysterious man named Gatsby, who was his neighbour back east.

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In Luhrmann's more-is-more cinema, our narrator evolves into convincingly doubling himself into two - one enchanted, one repelled, the first feverish, wearing his shirt as a skirt over his pants, the second watching from the street sad and mischievous, reminiscent of Jack Lemmon, brother to Kim Novak's witch in Bell Book And Candle.

Leonardo DiCaprio's is a bright, nuanced, marvellous Jay Gatsby. When he waves to his neighbour, drawings of steer can be seen over his shoulder, conjuring up bull fighting arenas and cave drawings. Gatsby's past is fluid, his stories are told as truth like legends are. While Nick splits into two, Gatsby incorporates many. He is both Beauty and Beast. His yellow roadster a child would love, his hydroplane, most likely, is red, and his love for Daisy is fervent and as real as it gets for someone who was given nothing at birth and who had to invent a life. DiCaprio's face lets you know when his heart sinks, his Gatsby is vulnerable and heartbreaking - a tortured soul who can make towering stacks of orchids and monumental macaroons look like a loving gesture. His Gatsby has great expectations and clearly couldn't care less about the enchanted objects around him, except what he can get from their exhibition.

His mansion is a castle for Beauty and the Beast, including the library, and the religious entrance ways into a gaudy church with an organ. "I like large parties, they're so intimate," says Jordan, while we hear a song called "A little party never killed nobody." The party scenes are exhilarating, lighthearted and of course, totally over the top. "Anything else you want?" Gatsby asks. Besides dolphins doing tricks in the pool, it's hard to ask for anything more of this over-sized children's ball with floating butterflies in the night air to kiss away your dreams.

The production design by Catherine Martin, Luhrmann's wife, who also co-produced is never boring and sometimes grotesque. She successfully handed over some of her costume design responsibilities to Miuccia Prada.

Carey Mulligan's Daisy Buchanan, Nick's cousin, radiantly wears, what Prada calls a 'Chandelier Dress', with beads that sparkle but obviously weren't made to be hugged. You don't hug a chandelier, do you, old sport? The men's Brooks Brothers suits and the women's flapper dresses work unobtrusively, too much in this case is just right. The house Nick rents on Long Island's West Egg resembles a hut from The Lord Of The Rings, placed next to Gatsby's garish castle straight out of Disney World, with grass too green and blue flowers that could have been dyed by Antoine Doinel. Mulligan's save-me, don't-save-me Daisy creation brilliantly juggles the three men in her life with a look. Her performance is concise and keeps their interest and ours throughout the long summer. Even when she's not there, she is present.

Joel Edgerton fiercely plays Daisy's husband Tom Buchanan and remains a cartoon villain more often than not. No match for DiCaprio's Calvin Candie in Django Unchained, his racist and anti-semitic remarks are left intact. He is first introduced wearing a polo shirt that visually cuts his upper body in half. The blue side matches the shade of the walls in their East Egg mansion exactly. At least since The Umbrellas of Cherbourg had Catherine Deneuve's dresses blend with the wallpaper, do we know what that means -Tom Buchanan is a product of his privileged upbringing and the "Polo Player" of the American aristocracy won't tolerate an intruder like Gatsby.

Two unforgettable scenes from the novel, both having to do with fabric, are on steroids in the movie. For these instances, the film became Daisy to my Gatsby - I desired the scenes to be mine, and they withdrew from me.

The white curtains blowing into the house when we first meet Daisy don't whisper or enchant, instead they flutter from a meaty wind machine. Lost grace befalls the religious experience of Jay Gatsby's beautiful shirts when they are being thrown from an upper floor in his tower-like bedroom. The scene as staged by Luhrmann is catchy in a different way, because it reveals Gatsby's playful side. He relaxes for the first time, silk raining down on his beloved. "I've never seen such beautiful shirts before," is no longer an epiphany but a shared joke.

The area between West and East Egg and New York City, is a "valley of ashes" presided over by the eyes of Doctor TJ Eckleburg, on a billboard for the yellow spectacled oculist from the borough of Queens, overlooking the garage of the tortured couple Myrtle (Isla Fisher) and George B Wilson (Jason Clarke, the torturer in Zero Dark Thirty). Under Luhrmann's direction the place becomes part western town, part garbage heap, part coal miners village - The Postman Always Rings Twice planted in the middle of The Grapes Of Wrath.

Cole Porter's Let's Misbehave, in smooth transition from Jay Z fare, introduces us to the ashen world of the Wilsons'. When Myrtle, Tom Buchanan's lover, comes down the spiral staircase, her red fishnet stockings are the most shocking lady leg entrance since Barbara Stanwyck's anklet seduced Fred MacMurray in Billy Wilder's Double Indemnity. Myrtle wears all reds and greens, like a Christmas tree on fire with the garish apartment her rich lover rented in the city to match. He also bought her a schnauzer, who has something to eat on a plate on the red pillow of a red armchair. Even the fire escapes outside are red, we hear jazz, get a few glimpses into the neighborhood's rear windows, her sister wears all green and before he knows what happened our narrator gets drunk for the first, no, make that the second time in his life.

Elizabeth Debicki plays world-famous golfer Jordan Baker, and although Luhrmann and co-screen writer Craig Pearce decided to cut much of her entanglement with Nick, she is a multi-faceted witness to the central drama. Like Leonardo DiCaprio, Debicki's face looks as if she is reading people before she acts, her reaction shots move us forward, pushing against the tide.

Some curious decision making went into the depiction of Gatsby's Jewish business partner Meyer Wolfsheim. He is played by well-known Bollywood actor Amitabh Bachchan as an elegant refined man, a far cry from Fitzgerald's description of a sleazy character who has trouble with his grammar and pronunciation. He is still described as a gambler, who "fixed the World's Series in 1919", referencing the historic Black Sox scandal. In a bold Freudian shift by Luhrmann, Wolfsheim's name is now pronounced Wolf-sheim, not Wolfs-heim. The only anti-semitic trace remains with Tom Buchanan.

In his first novel This Side of Paradise, Fitzgerald writes of his protagonist Amory Blaine that "he was a slave to his own moods and he felt that though he was capable of recklessness and audacity, he possessed neither courage, perseverance, nor self-respect".

The closer Luhrmann stays to the spirit of Fitzgerald and the more he trusts his cast, the better the result. Unnecessary explanations, cuts that interrupt the flow, Daisy dancing with Nick, or an invented drunkenly disheveled stumbling epilogue don't match. Luhrmann's Gatsby captures some brilliant cinematic fireflies. While we race with DiCaprio and Maguire through flashbacks of an imaginary past, we are not encouraged to escape the present. "They were careless people, Tom and Daisy - they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness…"

The memory Nick has of West Egg is not of the "night scene by El Greco" the novel describes.

The Great Gatsby ends on a beautiful fall morning, with the color of the sky as perfect as that of the tea served at the fateful afternoon at Nick's. The air is fresh, the pool Gatsby himself hadn't used all summer looks inviting after a long night following an even longer hot day in the city that changed the course of all their lives forever. "They pinned everything on Gatsby." Luhrmann gets it right.

Thank you for the snake charmer and not even a flower from Daisy!

Reviewed on: 15 May 2013
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The Great Gatsby packshot
A war veteran drawn into the glamorous life of his millionaire neighbour gradually discovers his secrets.
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Amber Wilkinson ****1/2

Director: Baz Luhrmann

Writer: Baz Luhrmann, Craig Pearce

Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tobey Maguire, Carey Mulligan, Joel Edgerton, Isla Fisher, Elizabeth Debicki, Jason Clarke, Amitabh Bachchan

Year: 2013

Runtime: 142 minutes

BBFC: 12A - Adult Supervision

Country: Australia, US


Cannes 2013

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