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Visual feast brings classic to life

THE GREAT GATSBY. Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tobey Maguire, Carey Mulligan, Joel Edgerton, and Elizabeth Debicki.  Directed by Baz Luhrmann. Rated M (Mature themes and violence). 142 min.


THIS film is based on F. Scott Fitzgerald¹s 1925 novel of the same name, and is the eagerly anticipated next movie by Australia’s Baz Luhrmann, who gave us Strictly Ballroom (1992), Moulin Rouge (2001), and Australia (2008).

There have been many screen versions of the novel before this film – in 1926, 1949, and 1974.

All have tried to capture one of the great classics of American literature.

The film is about the life and times of a mysterious, enigmatic millionaire, Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio), and his mid-western, war veteran, stockbroker neighbour, Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire), who recounts to us his adventures with Gatsby at the height of the roaring twenties.

Much of the movie was shot in Sydney, and features the old St Patrick’s Seminary in Manly as Gatsby’s mansion.

The film is about the decadences and excesses of affluent life on the coast of Long Island, New York, USA.

The movie offers a compelling critique of social extravagance. Gatsby is a person, who has a “heightened sensitivity to the promises of life”, and his life takes him into pathological obsession. The manifestation of his dreams is Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan), cousin of Nick Carraway.

Gatsby is certain that he loves her deeply, but ambiguously she could be part of “the romantic speculation he (has always) inspired.”

Nick makes contact with Daisy and her unfaithful, brutish husband, Tom (Joel Edgerton) who live across the bay.

Daisy’s friend, Jordan Baker (Elizabeth Debicki), describes Gatsby as a rich and flamboyant young man, who has a reputation for mounting lavish and extravagant parties for wealthy people.

Nick learns that Gatsby and Daisy were lovers in the past and that their love affair ended in the aftermath of the First World War, when Daisy married wealthy Tom Buchanan.

Scott Fitzgerald conveys the vulnerability of Daisy in his description of her as “gleaming like silver, safe and proud above the hot struggles of the poor”, and Mulligan presents her to us in just this way.

Gatsby is desperate to re-create his romance with Daisy just as he experienced it in the past.

Luhrmann is the master of over-the-top theatricality and his movie literally bursts onto the cinema screen in spectacular style, demonstrating the opulence of roaring 20s-hedonism.

The surface indications of excitement and pleasure in the 1920s also show a society that is losing its moral way, and the film extravagantly depicts life balanced precariously between reality and Scott-Fitzgerald’s  “purposeless splendor”.

It illustrates the heady excitement of the flapper-era, but portends the fall of a culture that celebrated living in ways that failed to think about any tomorrow.

Luhrmann¹s film, like the novel on which it is based, suggests that excesses often  parallel societal crises.

We are reminded that affluent cultures today are caught in spirals of their own making, as they choose to ignore what is happening around them.

Echoing this theme, the film’s colour and vibrancy hide deeper messages, and this is reinforced by DiCaprio, whose style of acting pinpoints Gatsby very effectively as a person trapped in the “vitality of his own illusion”.

In translating Scott Fitzgerald’s novel to the cinema screen, Luhrmann applies his visual imagination freely.

He has taken liberties with Scott Fitzgerald¹s work, but his imagination has captured the novel’s distinctive spirit, and he is helped enormously by quality casting and cinematography, wonderful  period-style costuming, and an attention-grabbing musical score.


This movie will divide people as Australia did.

Is it a Gatsby that’s flashy, or a Gatsby that’s great?

It is both, and it aiming to be so, it risks being entirely neither.

The film delivers its visual excesses (best viewed in 3D) and the film creatively offers inventive comment, as Scott Fitzgerald¹s novel did, on cultures that need to change, but refuse to do so.

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