The Great Gatsby

great gatsbyReleased: 2013
Director: Baz Luhrmann
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tobey Maguire, Carey Mulligan

Enjoyable but utterly superficial


I do my best not to judge films before I watch them but sometimes I end up with some preconceived notions about what I’m going in to see. I think more than most films this year I’ve considered The Great Gatsby before entering the cinema. I’ve read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel two or three times and The Beautiful and the Damned once. I admit to not being a fan of the books, they’re beautifully written but shallow; representing a world full of unlikeable characters. I assumed Baz Luhrmann’s film adaptation would be the same, but the trailer intrigued me so tried to give the film the benefit of the doubt.

Tobey Maguire plays Nick Carraway, a naïve young bond trader who enters the world of Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio) – a wealthy man whose background remains a mystery. Nick helps Gatsby to reunite with his lost love Daisy Buchanan, Nick’s cousin and wife of Tom Buchanan. Carraway is consumed by the glamorous and exciting world of parties, illicit booze and sexy women.

As you would expect from a Baz Luhrmann film this is a sumptuously filmed spectacle with lots of colour, an anachronistic modern soundtrack and most importance placed on the vibrant party scenes. But substance? No, there’s not much of that here. Despite being the large set-pieces in the film the party scenes are the least successful, fine for a few moments but vacuous after a while. Where The Great Gatsby does hit home is the smaller, more intimate scenes between DiCaprio’s Gatsby and Carey Mulligan’s Daisy. Particularly touching is the first meeting over tea in Nick’s cottage. The scene sparkles with repressed passion and pain at years apart.

The performances are mixed – DiCaprio brings a full range of emotions to Gatsby and he outshines the film, even in the glossiest scenes. I also enjoyed Joel Edgerton’s performance as the boorish, drunken Tom Buchanan. Tobey Maguire is unexpectedly charisma-free as Carraway, but I’m unsure if it’s bad acting or if the character was deliberately low-key to act as a counterpoint to Gatsby’s world. I had very high hopes for Carey Mulligan as Daisy, but there was no spark. That could be a consequence of the lack of empathy I felt for Daisy. She was portrayed as a silly, vain woman who vaguely mentions her daughter in passing but shows no real affection for anyone other than herself.

The lack of subtlety is also a problem. Despite the narration from Carraway, Luhrmann has a real problem with allowing the words to tell the full story. At one point we see Gatsby from behind with Carraway telling us he appears to be reaching for something across the bay. Then Gatsby’s hand clunkily stretches out across the water. It insults the audience to spell everything out for them, which happens here often. Sometimes this is quite literally as words appear on screen.

The Great Gatsby isn’t a bad film, in fact it’s fairly enjoyable and there’s fun to be had in the over-the-top glitz. It is however superficial, shallow and uneven. Sometimes though pre-conceived notions are the right ones.

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