With 'The Great Gatsby', Luhrmann again tries to demonstrate depth beyond the luxurious façade.
Style over substance is the frequent accusation aimed at Baz Luhrmann’s works, his heightened fusion of the fevered, flashy and frenetic casting thematic complexity into the background. Yet the Australian auteur has aimed to deliver both throughout his now five-film career, to varying results. Where Strictly Ballroom crackled with sincerity as it localised fairy tales, Romeo + Juliet shined in its modernised translation of Shakespeare. Although less successful but no less sweeping, Moulin Rouge combined the theatrical with the ostentatious. Alas, Australia’s attempt at crafting the story of and for a nation was too broad to be as bold as it endeavoured.
With The Great Gatsby, Luhrmann again tries to demonstrate depth beyond the luxurious façade, marrying his inimitable aesthetics to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s great American novel. As evidenced in his past works, the material proves an apt fit for his sensibilities, with the struggle of an idealistic dreamer in pursuit of a fated romance the primary concern. Of course, the author furnished his tragic tale with commentary on decadence, recklessness and the culture of excess, as steeped in a society always wanting more but never daring to ponder the consequences. The imprint of such statements remains on screen, though without the real bite; however, the film is more than an attractive, empty vessel.
The writer/director and his four-time co-scribe Craig Pearce are as leisurely with the story as narrator Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire, Brothers), with neither forthcoming with all the mysterious details. His eyes wide open to the possibility of New York City circa 1922, polite and modest bonds broker Carraway becomes ensconced in wilder lives than his own – first in the crumbling marriage of his cousin Daisy (Carey Mulligan, Shame) and her adulterous sports star husband Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton, Zero Dark Thirty), then in the enigmatic dealings of his wealthy neighbour and prolific party host, the titular Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio, Django Unchained).
Affairs of the heart monopolise Luhrmann’s pieced-together revision of the narrative, set not only amidst delirious backdrops of thriving parties and writhing bodies, but also against rare quieter moments of desperation. Although the helmer lends his overt introspection to the love story rather than its broader implications, his film is still concerned with the fleeting nature of the American dream. Accordingly, the extravagance of his exquisite staging, expressive direction and heightened sense of movement is fitting, with his characters imbued with the same exaggerated mindset. Restraint both in the story and style, when glimpsed, is earned – the film’s creativity matching its interpretation of the content.
Just as the feature’s undeniable technical opulence is apparent in Catherine Martin’s intricate production and costume design, Simon Duggan’s (Killer Elite) swooping 3D cinematography and the anachronistic Jay-Z produced soundtrack, abundance also manifests in the efforts of the cast. The commanding but fragile DiCaprio stays true to his recent fine form, Mulligan perfects the requisite wistfulness and restlessness, and Maguire awkwardly engages as the film’s observer and conscience. Even as images fly by in a flurry of colour and movement, the trio immerse the audience in the superfluousness. Issues of storytelling remain in the characters, but not in the adroit performances.
Where The Great Gatsby most suffers is in the realisation of its ambition in trying to adhere to the source material whilst forging its own steps in the adaptation – in retaining its own style but conforming to its inspiration’s substance. As a separate entity, it entertains in an elongated but impeccably made melodrama seething with sumptuousness and flirting with meaning, and perhaps that’s all it should’ve tried to be. The incursion of Fitzgerald’s mellifluous words in every line of over-used narration – and sometimes on screen, too – may be filled with good intentions, but provides a constant reminder of the texture of the textual alternative.
The Great Gatsby
Director: Baz Luhrmann
Australia / USA, 2012, 142 mins
Release date: May 30