I first watched the famous 1974 Robert Redford-led adaptation of The Great Gatsby when I had my second ever hangover and I apparently thought that the great and tragic love story and portrayal of the inaccessibility of the American Dream was the perfect way to get through it. I enjoyed the film, but didn’t think it was near the level of quality of the book, although it gripped me more than I thought possible in my lethargic state.
Three years on, I have been excited by the prospect of a modern vision of The Great Gatsby, albeit from the mind of Baz Luhrmann whose Moulin Rouge I found abhorrent (although I had a great time watching Romeo + Juliet at a sleepover once). I became more and more sceptical after seeing the strongly mixed reviews suggesting a Marmite-style experience, as well as articles pointing out all the similarities between The Great Gatsby and Moulin Rouge, but I couldn’t resist going to see for myself on the first night of its UK release.
Luckily, I was very pleasantly surprised. It was easier than expected to walk away from the cinema feeling happy because most of the negative points that critically popped into my head throughout were during the first half; act two became much more refined, emotional and thought provoking in a manner befitting the book.
First, the negatives (it will be much nicer to end on a pleasant note, as the film did). I saw the film in 2D and yet there were still a few points when there was serious potential for motion sickness or a headache: camerawork that plummets down a skyscraper or zooms and twists around the parties is all very well and good, and it does look pretty cool, but it can be a bit much, especially when it comes out of nowhere; this must be even worse in 3D! In an equally mixed fashion, the colouring and visuals of the film were constantly interesting to watch with clever dark/bright contrasts between the poor/rich, but in the poor area this was just slightly too stark and inappropriately polished, giving it the tendency to bring you out of the story slightly.
The framing device through which Nick tells the story in his psychiatrist’s office at first seems totally unnecessary, jerking you out of the story and focusing too much on Nick; however, by the end of the film I had come around to this as a way of giving the character the closure he needed after the story’s events as well as giving the sought-after explanation of why he’s narrating for the entire film. It is harder to maintain a film in the third person than it is with a book.
There were two symbols that struck me as clever but were then repeatedly shoved in our faces. The reworking of the iconic Great Gatsby book cover with the blue face initially excited me when I saw it as a billboard in the poor area, but then the cameras began continually zooming into it and we were even explicitly told that it was a metaphor for God seeing everything. So that got annoying. Equally, the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock as a symbol of Gatsby’s hope is timeless, so we shouldn’t need to be reminded of it every few minutes. Both of these were smart ideas but poorly executed, which was an all too prevalent theme here.
The use of modern music (Jay Z, Lana Del Ray etc.) throughout the film is somewhat successful due to the way it complements the vivid visual style on show, but during the party scenes it’s actually made to feel quite out of place by the fact that we’re offered many glimpses of the traditional swing bands who were actually playing at these events. We see them playing their instruments and we see people dancing but it doesn’t fit together. We see women mouthing along to the words we can actually hear but then this obviously doesn’t work with the visuals of what’s going on around her. It all gets quite confused.
Fortunately, the second half of the film redeems almost every one of these points (except for the forced symbols. They just get worse). The turnaround point is when we first see Gatsby, which is a moment that is all I’d hoped for. Gershwin’s Rhapsody In Blue perfectly complements the stylised image of New York that’s on show, and Gatsby turning round to face us/Nick at its climax at the head of the party makes him look important, mysterious and glamorised all at once. After being absent for the first portion of both book and film, this reveal is one of the most important moments and Luhrmann pulled this off wonderfully.
Although every one of the lead actors brilliantly embodies their character, Leonardo DiCaprio is Jay Gatsby and I feel like he could finally get the Oscar he deserves for this performance (although, let’s face it, that’s extremely unlikely). The scene in which he is first reunited with Daisy in Nick’s cottage is one of the most delightful of the film, with a wonderfully comic moment as Gatsby rushes out in panic and also fumbles with a clock, and this is matched only by the tension and turmoil of the group scene in the Plaza which gets quite difficult to watch because it’s so well done.
Since the second half of the film is able to abandon its predecessor’s flamboyance, it feels more real, with believable and sometimes heartbreaking emotions and the more traditional underscoring music feels much needed and well suited. In the first half I couldn’t help but critically note things that I wasn’t sure about in my head, but later on I just got caught up in the high-flying emotions, especially when each character was crying and it was so hard not to be totally immersed in their lives by that point. I needn’t have been so scared about it being like Moulin Rouge, because the only over the top moments are more or less appropriate and not overdone and the source material has been totally respected. I could easily watch this film again soon, and a lot of that is undoubtedly down to Leo’s magnificent performance. I couldn’t watch this version with a hangover- too many bright colours and loud noises- but Leo managed to embody this iconic titular character as Robert Redford never could.