Despite being swathed in Baz Luhrmann’s signature flamboyance, or perhaps because of it, The Great Gatsby is a somewhat disappointing experience. Tackling such a canonical novel was always fraught with danger but, given his success updating Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, there was every reason to believe that Luhrmann might do the same for what is widely regarded as the Great American Novel. However, on this occasion, it really seems as though Luhrmann has chosen this particular text as an opportunity for his costume designer wife Catherine Martin to demonstrate her considerable skills, rather than any desire to offer an engaging cinematic telling of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic story. Much of the film looks fabulous, but many elements are overblown and, ultimately, so unbelievable that engagement with the characters is difficult. Plot and characterisation are sacrificed for spectacle, of which there is plenty.
Set in the decadent 1920’s of New York, the story is told through the eyes of Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire), a wannabe writer who finds himself lured into the orbit of enigmatic millionaire neighbour Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio). Carraway finds himself caught in the middle and hopelessly out of his depth when Gatsby sets out to rekindle his romance with Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan), who is trapped in a loveless marriage with the brutish Tom (Joel Edgerton). After staging a series of lavish parties that failed to secure her attention, Gatsby uses Carraway as a pawn in his efforts to lure Daisy back into his arms.
DiCaprio is great as Gatsby, a man whose past and present are shrouded in mystery, rumour and innuendo, with only Carraway and the decidedly dodgy Meyer Wolfsheim (Amitabh Bachchan) having access to the truth. Whilst many critics have decried Maguire’s performance as Carraway, I think his bug-eyed naivety works well in this role and his narration does reflect the sense of bewilderment that seems to pervade his memory of events. The always amazing Carey Mulligan is fine as the self-absorbed Daisy, a character who is very difficult to like as she manipulates all of the men in her life, ultimately with tragic consequences.
It is many of the other characters that ultimately pitch The Great Gatsby towards the realm of soap opera-like melodrama. Edgerton’s accent and stilted posturing as Tom is almost comical, while Isla Fischer is somewhat shrill as Tom’s mistress Myrtle Wilson. Elizabeth Debicki has nothing to do as Jordan Baker and Jason Clarke’s portrayal of George Wilson harks back to his dim witted redneck role in Lawless. Jack Thompson (Dr Perkins), Richard Carter (Herzog) and Felix Williamson (Henri) are amongst the bevy of Australians who feature, although the likes of Vince Colosimo, Steve Bisley, Barry Otto, Max Cullen, Gemma Ward and Nick Tate are confined to blink-and-you-mess-them roles that bely their talent and, in several instances, their status within the local industry.
The sets, costumes and period detail are terrific and the film is great to look at, with the elaborate party sequences choreographed spectacularly to capture the hedonistic lifestyle of the filthy rich. However, ultimately, the film lacks heart and we spend too much time on the surface, never really afforded any opportunity to see what makes the characters tick. In privileging style over substance, Luhrmann has ultimately constructed a film that, much like Daisy Buchanan, is gorgeous to look at but ultimately lacks substance, lending considerable weight to claims that Fitzgerald’s tome, or the essence of it at least, is unfilmable.