Great cast, great visuals - but is it a great Gatsby?
If only we’d known the shenanigans going on at Sydney's Fox Studios all those months ago. Baz Luhrmann has made the twenties roar, and then some – Gatsby is a visual extravaganza as tumultuous and exorbitant as F Scott Fitzgerald’s novel is understated and spare. The downbeat tale of mysterious millionaire Jay Gatsby (Leonardo diCaprio) and his idealistic pursuit of Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan), intended as a critique of the excesses of the Jazz Age, here looks more like a celebration, with exquisite design by Catherine Martin everywhere you look, dazzling digital reconstructions of New York in the 1920s, and party scenes that erupt to the sounds of contemporary pop. So, is it a bastardisation of Fitzgerald, or a valid interpretation? It’s both, old sport.
Luhrmann may dislike giving actors breathing space – he prefers montages to actual scenes – but his casting is impeccable. He’s got DiCaprio, boyish and morally murky; Mulligan, wan and wavering; and Tobey Maguire, ideal as Fitzgerald’s wistful, watchful narrator, Nick Carraway (although a framing device of Nick in-treatment with Jack Thompson’s psychiatrist is cornball). Two Aussies make a huge impression. Elizabeth Debicki is aloof and alluring as lady golfer Jordan Baker, while Joel Edgerton’s sneering Tom Buchanan is a bully and an old-money racist whose certainty in his superiority to the nouveau riche Gatsby is chillingly absolute. In contrast to David Wenham in Australia, he's no mere moustache twirler.
The last truly watchable Luhrmann film was Romeo + Juliet, and Gatsby is cut from the same cloth: a canonical tale given a fresh spin. Sneer all you like at the swooping crane shots and lightning edits, but much of the dialogue is straight from the book. The adaptation is faithful. Which may be beside the point: Luhrmann’s triumph is one of marketing – this is less a film than a cultural signpost bringing together current trends in music, cocktails and fashion, selling not a story but a Zeitgeist. Nick Carraway, standing in for Fitzgerald, tells Gatsby that he can’t bring back the past. But Gatsby’s reply is Luhrmann’s ultimate riposte: why, of course you can.