The opening of Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby is exactly what I hoped it would be. I’m not talking about Tobey Maguire’s (spider-)silky smooth voice indulging the interest of his psychiatrist at a sanitarium. I’m talking about the very first thing we see: a flickering black-and-white projection of the company logos that instantly recalls the red curtain opening of Moulin Rouge!. We then see the J|G insignia bloom as the black-and-white framing turns to bright golden gates that draw us deep into the 3D cinescape that beckons ahead.
Baz Luhrmann has always framed his films within their openings, the red curtain trilogy being the most distinct example. Australia was a bit of a departure in that regard (amongst others), using onscreen text to portray the lay of the period and the plight of half-caste aboriginal children. The first shot then evokes deep colours and majesty the like of Gone with the Wind, benching us quite purely in an epic period landscape. So if its opening titles are any indication, The Great Gatsby is Baz’s most passionately cinematic statement to date.
Make no mistake, each of his films are emphatic statements about the world surrounding him. Strictly Ballroom is practically the thesis statement for his career, that “a life lived in fear is a life half lived”. Romeo + Juliet took Shakespeare’s “violent passions” and used it to denounce not just gang warfare, but prejudicial violence in general. Even Australia comes from an organic desire in Baz to raise awareness of his country’s tragic history beyond the stereotypes, all while discovering it anew for himself. All the while, and in Moulin Rouge! particularly, he has pushed his most central belief: Love.
If you asked the most savvy of Fitzgerald analysts, love would not necessarily be the foremost theme they’d pull out. Gender, race, and particularly class prejudices are the main takeaways of The Great Gatsby as Fitzgerald wrote it, and it’s to walk away from it left cynical about the human race as a whole. The clash of Luhrmann’s ideology with the mass opinion of the novel, along with the intense depth of the novel’s themes, means he has quite the massive job on his hand to serve up an interpretation that’s undeniably his own, yet not skimping on his own rich details.
It would be easy for him and co-screenwriter Craig Pearce to boil down the novel’s details, and to an extent they do. Otherwise much of the dense dialogue has been retained verbatim from the novel, making Baz’s film less an adaptation than an interpretation, in much the same way as Romeo + Juliet was, shining a new production light on known material. His way of recreating the novel’s first person narration by having Nick Carraway recall the events from a sanitarium may be a facile framing device if it weren’t for its tragic significance in the real lives of the Fitzgeralds. One thing the novel doesn’t offer is the contrast of summer, when much of the story takes place, and winter, the bitter isolation long after the glory days have passed.
It’s to this end that Tobey Maguire’s voice proves sultrily adept to telling this story, reliving the excitements and frustrations of the story just as we’re experiencing a new vision of it. Nick Carraway really is the perfect role for his forever guileless style of performance, so much so that the vigorous experience he displays towards the end truly shakes the viewer, as deeply passionate as the romance seemingly at the film’s center.
The film excels at making sense of a romantic framework that could have easily been muddled. Take Daisy Buchanan, a character that could easily be the problematic object of to-be-looked-at-ness, but is delivered to us as a conflicted human being by Carey Mulligan. From the moment Nick describes her gaze towards everyone as though there’s nobody else in the world she’d rather be with, Mulligan tackles that performative aspect of Daisy with tragic awareness and confusion. It’s a front she’s been putting on for so long that it’s become nearly inextricable from her true self, making interjections like her talk of “the future of the coloured empire” crippling by how much she’s been twisted by husband.
Tom Buchanan is as prominent a player in these games as any, not just the oppressive husband, but one who is self-suppressed. Joel Edgerton’s handling of the character has all the seething camp we expect of a Luhrmann villain, mustache well attached, but also a charisma so self-confident he’s able to turn it onto others as another weapon of his supremacy. He’s not putting on a facade like Daisy or Gatsby, not even for his only scarcely veiled romantic affair with Myrtle, the wife of a mechanic in the Valley of Ashes.
Details so overtly symbolic as the Valley of Ashes really show how visual a world Fitzgerald had already conjured, and if anything, Baz embellishes those details. You truly feel the squalor of the poor living just outside the greatest city of the world, and its use in the final act proves spinetingling and genuinely somber. Also fascinating is the aforementioned issues of race, here getting several depictions imbued with either jazzy excitement, naive hope, or sexual possession.
Of course the use of modern hip hop enlivens this atmosphere, Jay-Z’s soundtrack enervating each of Gatsby’s rambunctious parties, though his and Kanye’s song “Who Gon Stop Me” really kicks us into party mode during Nick’s first illicit venture with Tom into the city. The real showstopper, though, turns out to be a classical one, with George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” being given possibly its most lively onscreen context amidst Jay Gatsby’s glorious introduction.
Gatsby himself, as further embellished by DiCaprio’s equal parts showboating and fascinating character deconstruction, is a bonafide movie star figure. Tucked cinematic references from Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard to Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory to Jean Epstein’s La Glace à trois faces really go far towards making him a larger-than-life figure. It’s in the character of Gatsby that Baz gets to model all of the classic movie star personas; He’s Jimmy Stewart, Orson Welles and Gene Kelly, all rolled up into one spastic, intentionally jumbled package. This is the facade he puts to make himself seem rich in experiences, even if he comes from poor beginnings.
The struggle at the heart of the story is between the powers of the reckless rich and the hopeful poor, and Gatsby’s internalization of this struggle really gives DiCaprio a lot to work with. No wonder he turns over the best performance of his career, forgoing being the sympathetic conduit for the audience to put up a labyrinth of neuroses for Gatsby to overcome. Anchoring all this is a childlike sense of hope that’s been the staple of his best work. Gatsby, Tom, and Daisy all undergo the same crisis of love and security, but only one is able to abandon the latter for the sake of the former, and if you’ve read the novel, you know the repercussions
We see love of material things and true love of a person clash time and again, with us occasionally questioning whether Gatsby is in love with Daisy or the idea of Daisy. The same goes for Daisy towards Gatsby, and the most wildly passionate of these scenes makes the simple act of throwing clothes onto a girl so utterly exhilarating. Luhrmann knows how to crank up the cinematic power of visuals and how their rapid editing can build of a rush of excitement in the viewer, and this comes in handy as we build towards the film’s climactic showdown. What could be simply an innocuous chat in a hotel room turns into a vicious verbal sparring session that leaves all our characters in shambles beyond repair.
Indeed Baz Luhrmann’s creed of living for love at all costs doesn’t mesh as perfectly with Fitzgerald as it has for his other works. In each of his prior films, love did prevail for both parties, even if they were quickly thereafter consumed by death. We do get a powerfully hopeful finish for one character at the end, but it’s a mistake that Nick makes possible. In the real world, love does not conquer over greed or carelessness, but Baz clings onto the immortal last line of Fitzgerald’s text, reaching out for that green light till the very end. As the 3D screen pulled that light further away, I was left reaching out too. When a film extends the opportunity for you to return a gesture, why not seize the opportunity?