Baz Luhrmann injects the Summer Of Film with the glitz and glamour of the Jazz Age- but can he recapture F. Scott Fitzgerald's masterpiece?
To some, the concept of the perfect film adaptation of a novel feels just as out of reach as that same green light which "recedes from our grasp, year by year", as Nick Carraway relates to us in the final moments of the novel (and now subsequently its film rendition) The Great Gatsby. Indeed, while Baz Luhrmann's modern reinterpretation of F.Scott Fitzgerald's quintessential 1920s American tale has undoubtedly been one of the most anticipated adaptations of recent times, there's equally been an air of trepidation as to whether the production team could possibly match such a literary classic. So, did Warner Brothers succeed in their lofty ambitions, or will Gatsby's 2013 rendition be left in the gutter at the Valley of Ashes, forever watched over by Doctor T.J. Eckleburg in shame of what could have been?
Certainly, if there's one definitive credit that can be thrust upon Luhrmann, it's that in his direction of Gatsby, he proves without fail his exceptional grasp of the Jazz Age and its social cultures. Whether it's in the near-giddy fast-paced sweeping shots of New York that will take viewers from the glamorous skyline to the hustled streets in a matter of seconds via a swift CGI camera swoop which feels seamless, or indeed the intelligent use of renowned tracks such as Empire State of Mind and original pieces from the likes of Florence and the Machine, Will.i.am, Jay Z, Lana Del Ray and other hip-hop/alternative artists, there's an incredible sense of realistic atmosphere in this reproduction of 1920s America the likes of which we're unlikely to see in such vivid fashion again. As Carraway, our narrator now placed in a sanatorium context of post-depression alcoholism, relates his feeling "enchanted and repelled simultaneously by the varieties of life" upon his first trip into the Big Apple, we're given a broad look at those "varieties" across the city's apartments while intricately melding footage with Tom's semi-iconic attack on Myrtle for mentioning his wife's name. It's this blend of intimacy and glitz which ultimately makes the film as a whole such a joy.
No respectable novel-to-film adaptation could survive without a memorable main cast to lead its way, though, and in this respect Gatsby remains an unequivocally strong contender. Leonardo DiCaprio was a divisive choice for that titular role, especially following in the esteemed footsteps of Robert Redford, yet to this reviewer Leo embodies perfectly all of the key traits of hope, mystery and pure idealism found in that elusive protagonist, sharing a chemistry with Tobey Maguire's Carraway that won't soon be forgotten. Carey Mulligan has a brilliant attempt at capturing the random magic of Daisy, putting a perhaps more realistic spin on someone who even in written form seemed like something of a disparate construct. Beyond those stars, the actors and actresses behind Myrtle, Tom (Joel Edgerton shines as the semi-antagonist), George, Mayor Wolfsheim and others all contribute brilliantly to the sense of depth and substance Fitzgerald and thus Luhrmann bestow upon each of their key players.
Nevertheless, it would be irrational and dishonest to call The Great Gatsby the perfect film- much as its protagonist strives for a titular greatness that sadly is already beyond his grasp from the outset, so too does Luhrmann's 2013 reinvention attempt some notes which don't quite work out fully in its favour. For instance, while the incorporation of hip-hop and alternative music tracks (the Jazz of the 21st Century, as Luhrmann so elegantly puts it) into the world of booming industry and glamour for the most part is a success, this reviewer couldn't help but wish this incorporation had been fully utilised in the movie's latter moments rather than left by the wayside in favour of more dramatic and thus linear lyric-less melodies. Given that the brilliant CD soundtrack is littered with iconic new renditions of classic 2000s songs, it doesn't seem too much to ask that such greats take a little more precedence in a work of film that's so clearly bent on innovating from the norm.
Indeed, whereas visually and aurally this sense of innovation works fully in Luhrmann's favour rather than to his detriment, occasionally the same cannot be said of his narrative tweaks. I have no doubt that any budding literary motion picture adaptation needs to 'trim the excess' of the novelised work in order to enable a suitable running time, yet in focusing on key aspects of the text such as Nick's disillusionment with the world of prosperity around him and Gatsby's unwavering intents, the director arguably leaves behind one or two equally significant themes. Those fans of Fitzgerald's classic looking for its latest rendition to fully explore the concepts of 'old' and 'new' money, Jordan's role within Nick's increasing repulsion by those "inexhuastible varieties of life" or indeed a culmination to Gatsby's family arc will be left wanting in these regards. That's not to say that adding those elements of the narrative back into this version would have created something flawless, as such an attribute is virtually impossible for any film, yet these struck me as perhaps the most notable shortcomings holding the piece back from potential further greatness.
When it comes down to it, so much of the beauty of film derives from the fact that it as an entertainment genre is so capable of inspiring such a wide range of opinions. In few other instances will this fact be so true as with The Great Gatsby, a piece which has naturally proved divisive with reviewers already due to their own personal experiences with the text and their comparisons with Luhrmann's other acclaimed adaptations such as Moulin Rouge and Romeo & Juliet. I can only offer my own individual take on the matter, then, but to me this version of Gatsby represents a defining breakthrough within the realms of literary motion picture adaptations, even if it stumbles along the way. Contextual themes may well be lost in the transition, yet this only works to the movie's detriment to a minor extent for a fan of the novel, and certainly shouldn't deter the newcomer viewers. Indeed, that on the way out of the auditorium, this reviewer heard several comments along the lines of "Well, I'll have to read the book now, then!" speaks wonders for The Great Gatsby's potential renewed influence, and could just imply that the perfect film adaptation concept isn't "receding from our grasp" after all.