Skip to main content
film review

A scene from The Great Gatsby.Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures/The Associated Press

But first, before the glowing review, a little movie history. When The Great Gatsby last ventured onto the large screen, in 1974 with a woefully miscast Robert Redford and Mia Farrow squeaking in a voice like loose change, the adaptation laid an Egg as big as East and West combined. In fact, the film was so bad that it immediately raised two possible questions about the Scott Fitzgerald classic: (1) Was it not really a classic after all and didn't deserve its iconic rep?; or (2) Was the novel just too intrinsically literary and delicate to survive any transplant from its rightful home on the page?

Cut to the present when, in the lead-up to director Baz Luhrmann's much-hyped foray into the field, a spate of keen revisionists, sacred-cow-tippers all, have emerged to answer the first question with a resounding yes, denouncing the book (often with more eagerness than proof) as overwritten, oversymbolic and vastly overrated. Which brings us, finally, to Luhrmann's film and to a delicious irony: It's a terrific adaptation that succeeds not only as a work of cinema but also, wonderfully, as proof of the novel's greatness. In short, the picture rebukes the revisionists even while entertaining them. How?

For starters, Luhrmann and his co-screenwriter Craig Pearce are astute enough to know that Gatsby is much less an exercise in realism than a lyrical tone poem. In its style and its theme, artifice lies at the very heart of the book, and the director celebrated for his Red Curtain Trilogy (Strictly Ballroom, Romeo and Juliet, Moulin Rouge) is no slouch at artifice. So right from the initial travelling shot, through an art-deco frame to that green light at the dock's flickering end, the movie is unabashedly stylized and theatrical. His use of the 3-D camera, common now in action blockbusters but still rare in a drama, reinforces the artful point while also underscoring the script's first surprise, and its only significant departure from the source material.

Prepare to see an aged Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) in a remote sanitarium, diagnosed as a depressed alcoholic (yes, Fitzgerald's own fate). There, as winter rages outside an encircling window, the 3-D effects seem to have him ensconced within a giant snow globe, setting down on paper his account of that faraway summer in the Roaring Twenties. Of course, in the novel and here too, Nick is our narrator, prone to his occasionally purple rhetoric. But that imposed conceit, the image of a talented depressive writing from inside the bauble of his imagination, seems to validate his inflated prose and, better yet, lets us re-appreciate its inherent poetry.

Then, from the moment the narrative flashes back to the principal action, to Gatsby's impossible dream on the shores of Long Island and in the maelstrom of Manhattan, several happy conclusions are quickly apparent. The casting is note-perfect – Carey Mulligan's sad-eyed take on the narcissistic Daisy, Joel Edgerton's aggressively physical run at her philandering husband Tom, Elizabeth Debicki as cool and careless Jordan Baker. More important, the movie pulses with the vibrant, dissolute energy of the era. You'd expect Luhrmann to give good spectacle, although the trailers worrisomely suggest he may have gone over the top. Not the case.

Instead, the succession of costumed party sequences – in the flat of Tom's mistress, in the restaurant with the scheming Meyer Wolfsheim, culminating in the "kaleidoscope carnival" at Gatsby's absurdly opulent mansion – play out to a drunken, dizzying beat that's simultaneously invigorating and enervating, leaving us, much like Nick, "enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety" of Luhrmannesque life. And his trademark use of a contemporary soundtrack (Jay Z, Lana Del Rey, Beyoncé, André 3000) builds an inviting bridge between two confused and confusing Ages, yesterday's Jazz and today's Digital.

On to Leonardo DiCaprio in the title role. It's a tough gig, trying to pump flesh and blood into a character who's essentially a platonic conception of himself. But DiCaprio, unlike Redford, manages to convey the yearning innocence without sacrificing the palpable menace, especially during the pivotal confrontation scene – suspicious Tom, tortured Daisy, besotted Gatsby, onlooking Nick and Jordan – in the steaming heat at the Plaza Hotel. There, Luhrmann transforms a dramatic set-piece into a mini-play, where the performances are nuanced and the dialogue crackles. Indeed, the dialogue throughout rings surprisingly true, because the script has the good sense to lift only the most realistic bits from Fitzgerald, to augment where necessary with its own inventions, and, at judicious intervals, to layer in Nick's melodically elevating voiceover.

The climactic plot twists, which strain on the page, definitely shouldn't work on the screen, yet Luhrmann survives them by turning death itself into a stylized act, just the final pas de deux in a thematic ballet. In the end, as those famous last words literally dance across the screen, the verdict is clear: This is a great adaptation that falls just shy of being a great film.

The ineffable, lyrical magic of the novel, the potion that its admirers drink in deeply and its detractors gag on, goes missing here, perhaps inevitably. But even that absence feels generous, pointing to and justifying the classic's status. Baz Luhrmann's The Great Gatsby is a fun and entertaining and vital and brave reminder of what the book is and the movie, for all its many charms, is not – profoundly important.

Interact with The Globe