Thursday, 23 May 2013

Film Review: The Great Gatsby

Students of English Literature IGCSEs perhaps recall their studies of F Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby with boredom and confusion - the eyes of Dr Eckleburg have been known to flummox even relatively capable students. However, depending on their teacher, there's also a chance that they may recall this slim volume with a sense of the glamour, beauty, intensity and tragedy that is provoked so easily by many of the author's sublimely concise and elegant phrases. 

Those who remember the book for its glamorous aspects will not have been disappointed by Baz Luhrmann's version of The Great Gatsby, which opened the Cannes Film Festival last week. While some viewers have described the sets as cardboardy, and while it's easy to see why others could consider the costuming garish, the glitter and bright lights more than contribute to the sense of hedonistic vibrancy that one could perceive as characterising the Roaring Twenties. Equally, the music - focused around present-day artists such as Lana del Rey, Beyoncé and Jay-Z - did a great deal to capture the characters' wild party moods and chaotic passions. However, inherent in the music was also the inevitably anachronistic quality, with some viewers perhaps preferring to hear a backdrop of music more typical of the time period in which the story is set.

And what of the story? The script only has one major addition that aficionados of the novel would class as a fault, and even this does not massively impact the plotline's overall trajectory. Lovers of Fitzgerald's prose will have also noted the lack of replication of lines of dialogue from the original novel - a significant difference between this version and the version directed by Jack Clayton in 1974, which stars Robert Redford. To those who are familiar with Redford's portrayal of the role of Gatsby, echoes of his characterisation are without doubt noticeable in Leonardo diCaprio's interpretation, although this does not detract in any way from the quality of his performance.

As the first major adaptation of Fitzgerald's classic since 1974, Luhrmann's version was also bound to draw other comparisons, including the choice of Carey Mulligan to play Daisy as an inheritor of Mia Farrow's representation. While Mulligan made for a sexier and less irritating Daisy, Farrow's conception of the character struck the heart of the matter more deeply: as readers or viewers we are not necessarily meant to understand exactly what Gatsby sees in Daisy, to make them both seem more eccentric and to make us feel more like Nick Carraway, like outsiders. With Mulligan in this leading female role, this is not quite achieved, even though aspects of the dumb blonde are played well.

Carraway himself is played well by Tobey Maguire, although the character whose role he performs is done a disservice thanks to his narration being framed as part of a device not imagined by Fitzgerald, with him telling his story to a doctor in a mental institution. With the story of The Great Gatsby already having so many layers to explore, this one seemed superfluous and thereby disappointing.

The film ends with the novel's famous final lines being etched across the screen, with this being one of the few times that we see Fitzgerald's dazzling prose being evoked in all its glory. By paring back the prose so much in this film, we are left principally with the brute force of the story's tragedy, and while the tragic aspects are not unimportant, there is more to The Great Gatsby than this. The focus on appealing to young audiences means that glitz and glamour, and the supposed depth of Gatsby and Daisy's relationship, are prioritized over the devastating beauty of the prose itself and the characters' ultimate shallowness, as well as that of the world they inhabit. The novel's undercurrent and climax of superficiality are not fully fulfilled in this movie version, making it obvious that all of the public relations officers currently extolling the virtues of 1920s fashion, makeup and homewares in order to cash in on the Gatsby theme clearly have little knowledge of the book's real message - making it perhaps unlikely that after watching this film, students of Fitzgerald's work will look beyond the adaptation's glamorous setting to the novel's intense beauty.

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