The Great Gatsby

Among the adverts than ran before this film was one for Audi. You might have seen it, it is the one where a smartly dressed woman falls to the floor as her designer shoes, dress and bag fall apart. The tag line is:

‘Style or substance? We believe you can have both.’

It is probably just a coincidence but I’d like to think that some wily ad scheduler put this there on purpose because the question of whether we are getting style and substance is pretty pertinent to this movie.

The answer to this question is going to vary from person to person. There are often films that divide opinion and that’s okay. For example I think Black Swan is amazing, largely because it was bold, surreal and a little histrionic but I can accept that those same things could turn someone else against it. Similarly, I really enjoy Deep Blue Sea but I know it is rubbish really. Something like Inception on the other hand is brilliant and anyone who has a bad word to say about that movie it just plain wrong. The Great Gatsby could turn out to be a bit of a Marmite movie. Some people will like it and some will indeed think it is all style and little substance. I am afraid I am in the latter camp.

It isn’t as bad as Zack Snyder’s last film Sucker Punch that looked great but with its scantily clad heroines was actually truly awful. That film was like having an uncle who can do really cool magic tricks but makes everyone uncomfortable and never gets invited to family parties because he is actually a bit of a pervert. Neither is it as bad as Prometheus that had some properly beautiful special effects but a story full of nonsensical character motivations and lazy plot holes. Nonetheless The Great Gatsby is, in my opinion, pretty but shallow.

I think part of the problem is that I loved both William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge so I was going in with, perhaps unreasonably, high expectations.
Romeo + Juliet clearly had one of the finest plays ever written as its starting point and Baz Luhrmann’s flamboyant direction suited the poetic language. Moulin Rouge on the other hand had a slim and derivative plot but this meant that the stylised direction was what you were paying for. The Nutcracker has a pretty weak story but this doesn’t stop it being a great ballet.

The Great Gatsby clearly has at its centre a great story but in this case I think the directorial flourishes and undeniably impressive imagery over shadow it. It is just like last year’s film of Anna Karenina in that respect, the staging is clever but it is also a distraction.

This is particularly interesting in this case because F. Scott Fitzgerald’s source novel is all about how rich style, grandiose parties, fine clothes and fireworks can hide a genuine passion and heart. Unfortunately this film seems to be more interested in the pretty dresses and the light show and the love story gets lost in the mix.

To be fair though, there are some nice frocks. The clothes are stunning and this film is a sure bet for a Best Costume Oscar nomination next February. Leonardo DiCaprio even manages to look great in a pink suit. Having said that I didn’t realise it was pink until it was referenced as such, probably because I was watching it in 3D, 3D that is as gimmicky as all the other visual tricks.

The book does have a great story and I’d forgotten quite how much I had liked it. It is over twenty years since I’ve read it but everything quickly came back while I was watching the film. The central love story is genuinely touching and even now, eighty eight years after it was first published, it still doesn’t seem cliched or predictable. DiCaprio and Carey Mulligan are excellent as the leads and their performances are full of the subtleties and conviction we have come to expect from two such great performers. They show that a good film of this novel is perfectly possible but it would either need to put the relationships between the characters front and centre or do something totally different.

Baz Luhrmann sticks very closely to the words of the book to the point that many of them are featured in dialogue and narration or written across the screen. This doesn’t really work and while it showcases the quality of Fitzgerald’s writing, it doesn’t acknowledge that film is a different medium. If you were to come cold to Michael Ondaatje’s book The English Patient for example, there is no way you would ever think it would work on screen. The prose in that novel is wonderful but the reason the film works is that writer/director Anthony Minghella ditched it completely and made a sublime movie out of (some of) the story. If Luhrmann had been less in love with his source material and contemporised it like he did with Shakespeare, it might actually have gained more than it lost. It would certainly have meant that the great but totally anachronistic soundtrack wouldn’t have jarred quite as much as it did.

I was totally ready to love this film but about twenty minutes in I realised that I didn’t and I am afraid to say that there was nothing in the remaining two hours that changed my mind.

I never thought I’d say this but perhaps you should read the book instead.

Is this one for the kids?

The Great Gatsby is a 12A due to some sex and violence but there is nothing graphic. I love stuff like Iron Man and Star Trek but if you can get your children along to this then do. Despite what I have said above, anything that introduces young people to classic literature can only be a good thing.

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