There are moments in Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation – or maybe interpretation is a better term – of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic novel The Great Gatsby when the Australian filmmaker seems to get it just right.
A sense of yearning to recapture the glories of the past. A tantalising feeling of hope that such a thing is within reach. A deeply-buried fear that it actually isn’t.
Sadly, there are precious few of those moments. For all his intricate detailing and obvious good intentions, Luhrmann stumbles quite dramatically here.
He appears to have a rudimentary understanding of what The Great Gatsby is about but his ways of expressing it vary from clumsily to broadly.
Worst of all, however, he’s made a film that is downright dull and sluggish for long periods.
In his efforts to pay tribute to Fitzgerald’s work and era while making something ‘relevant’ to modern viewers, he’s packed every frame with audacious imagery and incident and filled the soundtrack with a mix of music old and new.
That’s Luhrmann’s style, of course, and while it worked a treat in William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet and, to a slightly lesser degree, Moulin Rouge, it only acts as a flimsy facade here.
Maybe that’s the point, though. Maybe Luhrmann is trying to say that the glitz and glamour of the Jazz Age’s festivities was a vain, desperate attempt to mask something hollow or absent, both in society and in the wealthy, mysterious Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio), who throws the wildest parties around.
But the filmmaker isn’t quite attuned enough to the more muted frequencies of wounded, melancholy souls to convey that kind of thing.
Luhrmann has always tended to work in broad strokes, and The Great Gatsby requires a more delicate and nuanced touch, even if its story – revolving around Gatsby’s heartfelt but deluded and futile efforts to win back Daisy (Carey Mulligan), the woman he loved and lost – is essentially a simple, straightforward one.
Luckily, he has DiCaprio, who pulls off the quite miraculous feat of staying in step with his director’s outsized approach while locating and articulating the genuine, unvarnished nature of his character.
It’s a truly intelligent and insightful performance, and quite possibly the one thing that saves The Great Gatsby from utter triviality.