An initially sceptical John Byrne enjoys Baz Luhrmann's hypnotic homage to F Scott Fitzgerald's literary masterpiece.
On the way to see Baz Luhrmann’s version of The Great Gatsby, I tried to put the book by F Scott Fitzgerald out of my mind, and for one very valid reason: it’s the greatest book I’ve ever read.
Then again, I’m also a fan of Baz Luhrmann’s visual flair and – for example - adored Moulin Rouge!, a musical that sharply divided critics and cinema-goers alike. Hmmm.
When I really thought about it, I feared that the combination of Gaz and Baz might result in a film unworthy of both director and novelist. It’s not as if others haven’t tried and failed before. Besides, both book and director have plenty of snakes in the long grass waiting to attack.
So, here we are, the fifth attempt at making a film of a book that tells a simple-enough story, but also carries so much weight in terms of subtext: the American Dream; the shallowness of indulgent consumption; the tiny and major treacheries that undermine love and destroy lives; the brittle and chaotic nature of existence; and the various levels of self-delusion that us humans use to trick ourselves into believing that we’re somehow in control of our lives.
Forget the Jazz Age of America in the 1920s, Gatsby is a fitting analogy for any time man’s been on this planet – but especially now, where celebrity is deified, conformity is the ultimate commodity and consumerism is considered to be the only key to happiness. We're living in an age of celebrity dentists and solicitors - how daft is that?
Anyway – the film. I had expected a visual spectacle that glossed over the substance of Gatsby, but I think Luhrmann just about made it over that line, while still offering a hypnotic and spectacular experience that could appeal to a broad audience.
Starting at a cracking pace and setting the scene for the PT Barnum-type party world of Jay Gatsby - a nouveau riche, self-reinvented resident of Long Island who would’ve effortlessly blended-in in Celtic Tiger Ireland - the film offers various nods to cinema’s past (Citizen Kane, The Third Man, Manhattan and Sunset Boulevard all spring to mind) while still serving Luhrmann’s unique vision.
Leonardo DiCaprio puts in a fine performance in the lead role, and Tobey Maguire does a low-key but well-pitched job as narrator Nick Carraway. With those two roles covered, the rest of the cast just had to turn up, get drunk and fall over, with Carey Mulligan playing a passable Daisy Buchanan and Joel Edgerton squeezing the best out of the largely one-dimensional Tom Buchanan.
After that it’s down to Luhrmann’s vision of the book and a dizzying soundtrack – including Jay Z, Lana Del Ray, Kanye West and Bryan Ferry - that somehow works and blends together, especially when George Gershwin's evocative music is used to herald Gatsby’s arrival on-screen, and the Long Island gang’s first foray into Manhattan.
If anything, Luhrmann shows a lot of self-restraint here, using his florid style relatively sparingly (except for the party scenes which are suitably intoxicating, and Gatsby’s meeting with Daisy in Nick’s home), and even shows a bit too much respect for the original work, as the film clunks a little in the middle trying to catch up with the contents of the book.
The final 30 minutes are hypnotic as the story hurtles towards its tragic climax, but it only scratches the surface of Fitzgerald’s masterpiece. Still, Luhrmann’s created a visually stunning and hugely enjoyable film that stands on its own merits.
Hopefully, people will go and see The Great Gatsby - it’s well worth the price of admission - and then feel compelled to read the book.