There is no doubting Baz Lurhmann’s highly divisive abilities: for some, his often ostentatious theatricality and fast-paced editing irritates, for others (myself included) his ability to balance moments of absolute pathos with utter despair demonstrates his unique brilliance.
Lurhmann has already proved his capabilities in adapting canonical literature: his Romeo and Juliet is surely the definitive adaptation, no other version capturing the raw passion of its source material so well. When I first heard of Lurhmann’s latest effort, The Great Gatsby, I thought Lurhmann to be a perfect match; his soundtrack decisions (with Jay Z producing a wonderfully eclectic roster of talent) further indicated to me the rightful focus on the debauched nature of the era.
Alas, despite my hopes and my faith in Lurhmann there is no doubting that his Gatsby is a flawed work: there are moments of brilliance, largely in the elaborately staged party scenes, but not enough for Lurhmann’s film to truly succeed. In adapting a novella so indelibly linked with American identity, Lurhmann knew his adaptation would receive close scrutiny, and his adaptation has, perhaps unfairly, received from self-professed Fitzgerald aficionados much vitriolic debate. Of course, an argument about an adaptation’s faithfulness to a novel is utterly outdated in the academic study of adaptation theory, and for me, it is far more important to present an adaptation that retains the spirit of the original text, rather than doggedly attempting to simply replicate the text onscreen.
Unfortunately, for Lurhmann, it is the very spirit of the original text that he so naively misjudges. Lurhmann revels in the debauchery, without offering any form of critique or comment (surely a vital element considering Nick Carraway’s damning verdict upon Tom and Daisy?). Recognisable set-pieces and scenes are present, but they remain oddly hollow, unable to connect.
Mulligan and DiCaprio are well-cast, with Mulligan’s Daisy capturing the ultimate sadness of her character that prior adaptations have neglected to depict and DiCaprio’s Gatsby carefully balances complete charm with moments of utter desperation. Maguire unfortunately fares less well, his Nick Carraway is entirely devoid of emotion and despite a narratorial framing device (perhaps intended to highlight the unreliability of Nick’s narration) which sees Nick in rehab for alcoholism sickened by his prior indulgence in absolute decadence, it does little to add interest to his character.
Ultimately, and perhaps most damningly, especially for a director such as Lurhmann, he fails to breathe life into his film, there are moments, brief vignettes where the films comes alive, but these moments are not enough to sustain engagement. Despite transposing much of Fitzgerald’s sublime prose word-for-word, the film falls flat.