Everyone in high school English at one point has to read The Great Gatsby but it has never been given a definitive film adaptation. Leonardo DiCaprio stars as the title character, with Carey Mulligan, Tobey Maguire, Joel Edgerton, Isla Fisher and Jason Clarke joining him in Baz Luhrmann’s fantastical 1920’s New York. Watch the trailer after the jump and then read my review.
Although this is the fourth film version of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s American classic, there hasn’t really been a definitive version that got it right. This film does that. Luhrmann has cracked the code for adopting books, staying true to the plot while still taking full advantage of the visual medium.
This is very colourful and exciting movie. Lurhmann makes every colour a little bit brighter, every party a little bit louder and every setting more detailed than the next.
One scene that really showcased the use of visual for telling the story is a high shot looking down on Gatsby’s yellow car as it’s driving into the city. As the car leaves the rich, green land of the rich, it enters the poor, dark valley of ashes and the differences is so definitive there is a very clear line between the colours. There are many scenes like this that, while not realistic, still perfectly capture the major class differences of the time.
The only other Luhrmann film I’ve seen is Romeo + Juliet where he changed the setting from Vienna Italy to a California beach city. The anachronisms are not as obvious in The Great Gatsby, but he still infuses modern pop music into his 1920’s world. The music sounds great and works for the background. I’ve been listening to the soundtrack all week at work and I was able to pick out all of the songs, even if they were only there for a few seconds.
The entire first half of the movie played out like a long music video. There were tons of quick cuts, fades back and forth between scenes and catchy music in the background. This is a high paced movie and it at times looks like the cameraman is as excited as the dancers. Wide flying shots are very frequent and many cuts and angles help keep the speed up. I liked it but at the same time thought it was a unique style that I haven’t seen before. At no time was I dizzy or annoyed with the speed of the editing, and instead I would just think about how much of a visual movie the whole thing was.
Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter is listed as a producer on the film and he was able to recruit such music stars as Beyoncé (his wife), will.i.am, Lana Del Rey, Fergie, Jack White and Florence + The Machine to contribute to the soundtrack. Although you only hear a few bars from each of their songs, the jazz-pop mix sounds great and represents the world very well. I recommend giving the songs a listen. Even on their own they are great tracks to have on a playlist.
All of the classic symbols from the book are back too. T.J. Eckleburg’s big eyes, Gatsby’s bright yellow car and the green light across the bay all are frequently shown throughout the film. With one big difference. Nick Carraway’s narration virtually explains them as soon as the are introduced, taking away the interpretation debates the novel created. Eckleburg is definitively God and the green light is everything Gatsby strives for, as told to us by Nick as he writes the novel.
This is the film’s largest difference. The plot of the novel now has a backdrop; Nick is seeking therapy and telling/ writing the story aloud to him. This explains the narration of the novel but results in some confusion. For example, in one scene where Nick and Gatsby are talking about Daisy, Nick’s narration jumps in just as much as Nick himself. While it is interesting to know what Nick is thinking about, it works better while he is walking away and not in the middle of a conversation.
The Great Gatsby was my favourite novel assigned in high school and when I read it, the cast for this film was already announced. Visualizing DiCaprio as the star and Mulligan as Daisy Buchanan helped me keep track of the action in the book and now that I’ve seen the movie, I can proudly say the cast has met (and sometimes exceeded) my expectations for them.
Mulligan plays Daisy straight and reflects her cold personality really well. I’ve heard people say her acting is too boring, but I think that Daisy’s character is genuinely boring and selfish, so of course Mulligan would play it that way. She still shows emotion and her characters journey is a difficult one to show without Nick being able to get into her head. But they do capture the constant decisions and selfish moves she makes well. Being British, Mulligian had to adopt an American accent and I didn’t notice any slips of tongue either. As I said above, Mulligan is who I always visualized in the role and I think she did a good job.
As Tom Buchanan, Joel Edgerton’s star continues to rise. I wasn’t too impressed with the performance at first, but then he gave an amazing speech in the climax of the film that changed my mind. In this scene, he convinces Daisy that he is the one for her through clever language and powerful accusations, all delivered in a very intimidating yet entertaining way from Edgerton. The Aussie actor had also had to adopt an American accent. But after also having a big role in Zero Dark Thirty, Edgerton is used to playing Americans by now.
Toby McGuire takes on the role of Nick Carraway, the one character who keeps everyone together. He still always looks tired on-screen, but he does have the most screen time and does hold his one with the bigger stars. This is another performance I visualized while reading the book, and while McGuire looks how I imagined, his voice is deeper and gruff than I expected. Nick is supposed to be the one guy everyone relies one and likes and while that happens in the movie, his personality probably wouldn’t draw that same attention in real life. He wants to help, sure, but McGuire’s version can’t keep up with the other characters and it brings the movie down a bit.
The small supporting roles from Jason Clarke, Isla Fisher and newcomer Elizabeth Debicki are all really well done. Clarke and Fisher play the Wilson’s, an underprivileged couple who don’t get much screen time but play a major role in the fates of the main cast. I didn’t even realize Clarke was in the movie until I saw him on-screen. He was one of my favourite performances from Zero Dark Thirty and I was surprised to see him transform into the dirty and stupid Wilson. Debicki plays Jordan Baker, who has a lot more scenes in the book than the movie. She spends most of the time sitting or standing in the background and it’s a shame. Debicki is tall and pretty and I expect her to see more screen time in future projects. Jordan character is just as interesting a character as Daisy but I guess Luhrmann thought the cast was too crowded.
At this point in his career, DiCaprio can pick and chose his films and I’m glad he picked this one. He looks like I visualized Gatsby would and has the skill to pull off the high emotional range required for the role. I especially enjoyed his introduction, where he just turns to the camera, smiles and says I’m Gatsby. His confidence is felt throughout (except the one funny scene where he is afraid to meet Daisy). What’s even more amazing is how he can go from playing a racist slave owner in Django Unchained to a selfish but heartbroken bootlegger. DiCaprio has always impressed me with his ability to become the characters he plays and fans of his work will enjoy his performance here.
This is a film first and foremost so it does have to omit some things from the novel. The massive themes on love and heartbreak probably don’t get as much attention as Fitzgerald would have liked. But the visuals add so much to the story that it still captures the time period well. This is an exciting movie to start but the dramatic portions don’t hold it back. And it ends with a few exciting scenes where the characters real feelings are revealed and someone dies. Fans of the book should like the movie and after its huge box office success, I hope it leads to more classic literature being adopted.