The Great Gatsby is good, actually

Ten years after Baz Luhrmann's audacious take on F. Scott Fitzgerald's beloved novel premiered, it's time to reassess this maligned venture.


Harri Knight-Davis

In preparation for an English class module on classic F. Scott Fitzgerald novel The Great Gatsby, I sat down and watched the 2013 film adaptation of the novel directed by Baz Luhrmann. Although I should have perhaps read the novel first in order to compare it to the film, I didn’t, and still had rollicking time watching Luhrmann and Leo DiCaprio reunite for the first time since 1996’s Romeo + Juliet.

Six years on from my first viewing – and more crucially 10 years on from The Great Gatsby’s debut in cinemas – apart from the occasional online sneering at the clip of Nick Carraway (Toby Maguire) writing ‘The Great’ next to ‘Gatsby’ in his draft of the book, and the ever-present gif of Jay Gatsby (DiCaprio) raising a champagne glass while a flurry of fireworks explode in the background, its legacy is non-existent. However, Luhrmann’s faithful adaptation of Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel is a kinetic romp through the 115-page novel that brings bundles of Baz energy while staying true to the love story and tragedy at its core.

The middling critical reception the film had on release and its underwhelming box office return can be easily understood with a variety of the criticisms valid: the dodgy digital effects, the epic runtime, its difficulties in the portrayal of the novel’s physical metaphors (such as the green light) and its side-lining of the female characters. But when it comes to adapting the Great American Novel, there will always be something that gets pushed aside to emphasise the filmmaker’s point of view. Such is the case for any novel to screen adaptation.

While critics were eager to attack the extravagance of the milieu and the indulgence of the set-pieces, what they forget is Luhrmann’s calm after the storm approach. The furore of the opening act is a magnificent showcase of maximalism – including one modern cinema’s greatest achievements in the introduction of Gatsby, living up to expectation – but Luhrmann knows he can’t sustain that pace for the two and a half hour runtime so slows down proceedings, focusing on characters and conversations over parties and bootlegging.

In the film’s last act, Gatsby confronts his long yearned for lover Daisy’s husband – the uber wealthy, old moneyed Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton) – over the fact that she doesn’t love him anymore. Luhrmann ratchets up the tension, with Gatsby’s facade on the precipice of crumbling and the fate of his and the woman he so loves future on a knife edge.

The scene is the perfect elision of Luhrmann’s frenetic editing and camera work, the beauty of the source material and exhibition of actors at the peak of their powers. Luhrmann and his editing team rarely hold a shot for longer than two seconds, capturing the desperate circumstances Gatsby finds himself in and his yearning to repeat the past ever so quickly slipping away. His frantic but controlled editing, constant slow zooms, shifting of focus, slight pans and wide shots inhabits the mindset of Gatsby’s a-million-thoughts-a-second mind while attempting to keep up appearances. But for once Luhrmann’s style is not the focal point – it is the actors that take centre stage, most notably DiCaprio.

The Great Gatsby arrived in 2013, a few months before Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street. Prior to the third act confrontation scene, Gatsby’s “extraordinary gift for hope” was well and truly intact, the pretence slightly cracking but sturdy; a man as glamorous as a man could be but clasping to their youth and the past. He is, in essence, the ageing DiCaprio. When the façade finally snaps in his confrontation with Tom, you see DiCaprio as well as Gatsby.

When his characters lose it in The Aviator or Revolutionary Road he’s still handsome, Hollywood star Leo; when he loses it with Tom Buchanan it is scary and real. DiCaprio is wholly believable as one of the most notable men in literature, and perfectly calibrates the performance of a man who is simultaneously suave and tragic.

DiCaprio’s performance, despite being undervalued, wasn’t a main complaint for critics and audiences in 2013, who saved their ire for Baz Luhrmann himself. Negative reviews, such as Richard Brody writing for the New Yorker and Indiewire’s assessment of The Great Gatsby seem to praise his singular directorial talent and his razzle dazzle tendencies, but later disregard the film due to Luhrmann’s aesthetic inclinations.

There seemed to have been a general consensus that The Great Gatsby was just one step too far, one incongruous hip-hop song too much. Compare that to nine years later when Luhrmann’s most recent directorial outing, Elvis, where he directed Tom Hanks in a fat suit to one of the most peculiar performances of recent times, and critics and audiences could see past it and understand what Luhrmann was aiming for.

Luhrmann’s 180° critical and cultural re-appraisal is odd as Elvis and The Great Gatsby share a multitude of similarities – most crucially a switch up of tempos. This is perfectly illustrated by the build up and then flirtation of Gatsby’s reunion with Daisy. The pent up anxiety of Gatsby, with his overcompensating pomp and circumstance, and ticking clock emphasising his agitation eventually relaxes into a genuinely quiet moment brimming with tenderness and happiness, which Luhrmann mostly prohibits throughout the film. Luhrmann isn’t a one trick pony, he can ramp up the camp or raucousness at the drop of an eccentric hat, but also dial it back with the same ease.

This is the key to The Great Gatsby. Luhrmann’s film is a respectful, luscious adaptation of the novel that basks in the prose and characters developed by Fitzgerald, but also brings riotous mayhem from one of Hollywood’s most outlandish auteurs. What makes The Great Gatsby so special is Luhrmann himself, who took the most iconic work of American literature and made it his own. He didn’t repeat the past – he transformed it.

Published 16 May 2023

Tags: Baz Luhrmann Leonardo DiCaprio The Great Gatsby

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