The Great Gatsby (2013)
Director: Baz Luhrmann
Cast: Leonardo di Caprio, Tobey Maguire, Carey Mulligan, Emily Foreman, Joel Edgerton, Elizabeth Debicki, Isla Fisher
Plot: In the Roaring Twenties, the golden life of the mysterious millionaire Jay Gatsby and the hope of a promising future as a writer attract the young and naive Nick Carraway, who will soon find himself in a family drama, when Gatsby will meet again his young lost love, and Nick’s cousin, Daisy Buchanan.
The film starts by introducing the audience to Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) as he seems to be describing the story of Jay Gatsby to a doctor. We are immediately given an idea of the dissolute lifestyles of the 1920s in the U.S, especially in New York and we find out that Nick had moved there to work on Wall Street, thus seemingly giving up his dream of becoming a writer. The story gets more interesting when we are introduced to the enigmatic and magnetic character of Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan) and her womanising former college football star husband Tom (Joel Edgerton), as Nick – who is her cousin – goes to her house to have dinner. She’s interesting because unlike many of the other characters she is presented to us as a angel from the outside, and yet is equally corrupted deep down. I was fascinated by the use of white and bright light to introduce her character to the audience because it gave us the idea of something beautiful and out of reach; a beautiful case of foreshadowing from the crew of the film. It was a very good start.
The moments following it were focused on a dinner party sequence cleverly constructed to convey the characters’ shallow approaches to life and their preoccupation with partying, luxury and fun, primarily through rotating camera movements focused on their faces that worked to remove focus from the characters’ words and thus prove them to be irrelevant, but also through how their conversation was interrupted almost immediately after the start of a serious discussion about racial equality. Generally, the movie stuck to this confrontation of outlandish wealth and privilege, and remained attached to telling its story through the flashbacks motivated by Nick’s decision to write a novel about his friend the great Gatsby. A particularly fine technique of presenting this information was the alternation between Nick’s recollection of the events – the words appearing on screen being the words he’s writing down on his manuscript – and the thoughts of Nick as he is at the time he tells the story. In short, the past and present intertwine, creating a sometimes contradictory presentation of events that echoes the reality of memory and hindsight.
What I found most interesting about the structure of the film was that Gatsby himself wasn’t introduced until half an hour into the movie, which I think is a good way of creating suspense given Nick’s pre-existing explanations of the character. Much like Nick’s life, the story moves much faster from the moment Gatsby is introduced to it, and the famously melancholic tone of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s famous novel.
A particularly standout moment from the presentation of the picture was the interesting choice from the director of photography to present the flashback of when Daisy and Gatsby first meet through the eyes of another character, Daisy’s friend Jordan. It was a brave choice as by this point in the movie people could have easily gotten tired of waiting for that moment, but it paid off because the build-up and presentation created a tangible chemistry that brought out the performance of the film from Carey Mulligan who conveyed Daisy’s shallow nature and conflicted feeling towards Gatsby with truly admirable craftsmanship.
Mulligan’s character seems ultimately incapable of love, just like her husband, and it’s presented as if a result of their social status and way of life, something Gatsby’s more sentimental and honest nature does not fit into despite his best intentions. As Nick explains: Tom and Daisy don’t care about other people, they just manipulate them for their own fun and amusement. Mulligan’s performance as an angelic yet negative figure that drives Gatsby to his end seems to convey a misogynistic message, reinforced by her actions and words as a shallow rich girl who doesn’t know what she wants and hurts everyone in the process of finding out. In contrast, the film’s narrator Nick, played by Tobey Maguire, was incredibly unlikable.
I was never a fan of Maguire’s work and his performance here did little to change that. At no point did his delivery make me feel involved in the journey his character was explaining and this lack of connection left a bitter taste in the mouth upon the discovery of his character being the only one in the movie to achieve any real success: becoming a writer. Similarly, I wasn’t impressed by Leonardo Di Caprio’s performance as he always seemed too melodramatic in his acting, thus giving the impression of his actions being contrived and simply unnatural. I must admit I enjoyed his performance more than Maguire’s and that it is much easier to sympathise with Gatsby’s character for his troubled life and past, though he does have violent outbursts and seems to consider Daisy his property – just like her husband Tom does.
Generally, as a woman of the 21st century, I fount the portrayal of women to be bordering on sexism and misogyny. Additionally, I felt that the decisions to dose the film with CGI and other special effects despite the loyally period costuming of the characters seemed out of place despite the otherwise impressive cinematography. The soundtrack also suffered from a similar fate whereby the works of classical composers were mixed with modern pop songs by the likes of Lana Del Ray, a general choice that took me out of the picture on several occasions. It seemed like Luhrmann was attempting to recreate the successful hybrid of techniques that made Romeo + Juliet (1996) such a success, but he ultimately failed in capturing the same essences of the original story as he had managed to find in his Shakespeare adaptation.
Overall, The Great Gatsby was a disappointing affair lifted by the work of its cinematographer and particularly Carey Mulligan. For these reasons, I give this film a…