F Scott Fitzgerald’s words, ‘the racy, adventurous feel of it at night ... the constant flicker of men and women and machines’, are the template for Baz Luhrmann’s fantastical cinematic version of The Great Gatsby, writes Gayle Edmunds
I fell for a mirage once in Cairo. I booked a room at a hotel based on the mirrored and gilded lobby festooned with bright green palm trees and shiny black Anubis statues.
The golden lift beckoned, but once the doors opened it was clear that I had been duped by the promise of something that did not exist – the rooms were as filthy as the lift was rickety.
So too F Scott Fitzgerald’s classic is a tale of chasing down the mirage of the American Dream, the proverbial pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.
Australian director Baz Luhrmann has reclaimed The Great Gatsby, published in 1925, for another generation. And what a kaleidoscope it is. One that captures the recklessness, decadence and excesses that lead to the tragedy of this tale.
Set in 1922 as Wall Street is on the glittering rise, women had finally gotten the vote (in 1920), life was good for those who’d survived the Great War and society appeared to be changing.
But as the characters discover, appearances are created to deceive.
Luhrmann, who transformed Romeo and Juliet into the teen romance it was meant to be and recreated the scarlet kinks of the Moulin Rouge, calls on his Romeo again to embody another passionate man of literature.
It is the now well-seasoned Leonardo DiCaprio who is Jay Gatsby, another award-worthy performance that is as far removed from his recent turn as the vicious and bloodthirsty Calvin Candie in Django Unchained, as you can imagine.
As an aside, the abiding, hopeful, naive passion of Gatsby could be what would have happened to Romeo if he’d lived and been separated from Juliet.
Narrated in a wide-eyed tone by Nick Carraway, a role Tobey Maguire is au fait with having done it before in the likes of The Good German and Sea Biscuit, this is the story of beckoning glittering facades and of reaching for the good life to find that it only applies to others.
As catharsis, Carraway writes down his experiences on Long Island in the summer of 1922 as the neighbour of the fabulous Gatsby, who is as celebrated as he is mysterious, with everyone whispering something different about him but no one alluding in public to just how a man gets quite so wealthy so quickly during the Prohibition Era.
His parties are legendary and his house is a riff on a fairytale castle straight out of a Disney film, fitting perhaps as the love Gatsby is nurturing is the kind that only survives in stories.
Gatsby courts Carraway, eventually inviting him to one of his parties and it is there that Carraway starts to get to the real story of Gatsby.
Gatsby asks Carraway to invite his cousin Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan), who lives across the bay with her old-moneyed, boorish husband Tom (Joel Edgerton).
It seems that before Gatsby was Great and Daisy was married, they’d shared a romance – one that Gatsby wants to reboot.
Luhrmann has recreated the jazz era with his signature flair. He might not be spot-on historically, but he captures the mind-set and atmosphere of the era, the devil-may-care attitude of those who had lived through a war that ripped the world as they knew it apart, and how they set about rebuilding it out of shimmer and shine, and a good time.
Mulligan is superb as the coquettish Daisy, who isn’t quite vulnerable.
Isla Fisher is unrecognisably good as Tom Buchanan’s rough bit on the side, but this film belongs to DiCaprio, who will break your heart as Gatsby.
Luhrmann choreographs every scene to perfection. He integrates the now ubiquitous 3D so skilfully that it doesn’t become a distraction (which is just as well as this is a film full of distractions) with fantastical fashion creations, architectural marvels and intricate set design.
It all casts a spell on the viewer so that they are also seduced by the bright lights – until it is all ripped away to reveal the ugliness that lies beneath.
Despite all the distractions, though, Fitzgerald’s characters are never upstaged and the warnings inherent in the story are as sobering today as they were a mere four years before the Great Depression began.
Film: The Great Gatsby (Nu Metro)
Director: Baz Luhrmann
Featuring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Carey Mulligan, Tobey Maguire, Joel Edgerton, Isla Fisher and Amitabh Bachchan
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