Film Review: ‘The Great Gatsby’

We haven’t really done any “full” film reviews here but after seeing The Great Gatsby yesterday (and harping on about it for months) I felt compelled to do so. Also, there may be some spoilers about the plot because The Great Gatsby is a ‘classic American novel’ so if you haven’t read the novel, please bear that in mind. Here goes…

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I “dragged” Helen along with me yesterday for an afternoon 3D showing of The Great Gatsby. (We had thought that, being only the second showing the screening might be fairly busy. We were definitely proved wrong.) A film based on The Great Gatsby is likely to appeal only to those who have loved the novel or, maybe, students studying the text. This is a bit of a shame and hopefully the appeal of the flash and bang that Baz Luhrmann brings to the film will bring in more audience members.

To start off, I really enjoyed the film. I am a great lover of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel so I could be a hard sell but I also have a deep respect for those attempting film adaptations. Also, I have only seen the Jack Clayton 1974 version once and I wasn’t a big fan. I appreciated the attempt at extreme faithfulness to the text and Robert Redford’s performance as Gatsby but other than that… So, for me, I wasn’t fighting against high expectations. My expectations were purely based on the visuals of the film.

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The visuals are very striking but I’ll talk about the costumes specifically later. One thing that is instantly noticeable about the film is the “style”. It may be a complete cliche to discuss Luhrmann and stylised film shots together; it is never more true than here. This film makes Moulin Rouge! look restrained. This might put a lot of people off (especially fans of the ’74 version) but as far as I’m concerned this completely helps with the extravagance of the world that Fitzgerald created. Having recently discussed The Great Gatsby at our book club there was a lot of dislike for the book. Most people were in agreement as to the lyrical nature of Fitzgerald’s writing but found the story as a whole to be lacking in depth and full of surface – also a view of Gatsby himself. If this is how you viewed the novel (and I think that is a completely fair assessment, even if it doesn’t detract from my enjoyment of it) then Luhrmann’s interpretation of the novel plays to this times 1,000. Luhrmann wanted to create the feeling of the ’20s as it would have been back then – brash, over-the-top and vaguely intimidating. This is especially true for Nick Carraway who is the audience’s eyes for this world. The hedonism of the era and scenes is pushed to eleven in this adaptation; particularly noticeable at the party at Myrtle’s flat. Carraway experiences this form of freedom before any of Gatsby’s higher class parties and it makes for a great set-up for his disillusionment with New York and the society by the end. The “debauchery” of Gatsby’s world increases throughout the film and this allows the audience to understand Carraway’s seduction into the world and his hatred of it.

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Leonardo DiCaprio does a great job expressing that eternal hope as Jay Gatsby. There is a great desire to see him succeed but, unfortunately, the Daisy Buchanan character will always be slightly difficult and she never feels that she deserves all of this effort. I wasn’t a fan of Mia Farrow’s Daisy in ’74 and I feel that Carey Mulligan follows a similar route. Reading the novel, I’ve always found her to be a completely vacuous character but still trapped in the society obligations that she has grown up in. In film adaptations she has always seemed to be a fairly ineffectual character. One great improvement, as far as I’m concerned, is in the character of Carraway. I felt much more of a connection with his character here than I did with the ’74 version. Carraway has the problem of being dragged into situations purely because of people he knows and not necessarily because of his character. I thought Maguire did a good job of portraying the struggling writer, both observing and living this strange experiences. I wasn’t a fan of the ‘Carraway in a Sanitorium’ framing device. The story is all about Gatsby anyway and we know that Carraway is merely our way in. Yes, he becomes disillusioned with the world but I think to suddenly create a myriad of emotional problems is just a way to set him at a type writer a la Ewan McGregor in Moulin Rouge! and allow for text to appear on the screen. This isn’t really a good enough reason for me. (But having thought about it, maybe it’s a way of explaining the excess of that world – we are hearing from a man living in a Sanitorium.) Other improvements on the ’74 characterisations are Joel Edgerton as Tom Buchanan and Elizabeth Debicki as Jordan Baker – a much more appealing character here if more than a little sidelined in the story.

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I think one flaw in Luhrmann’s films is to remove Daisy’s daughter apart from one reference and one sighting at the end. Tom and Daisy’s actions can almost be forgiven when you don’t see their daughter. When you see two parents who have no regard for their daughter, then your sympathies are troubled even more. This is one aspect that I preferred in the ’74 version; in particular Redford’s response to Daisy’s daughter. This is the beginning of a slight chipping away at Gatsby’s hope; if not for him, for the audience. This isn’t just a case of Daisy leaving Tom. There is a child involved.

Afterward he kept looking at the child with surprise. I don’t think he had ever really believed in its existence before.

(Gatsby’s first meeting with Pamela Buchanan.)

Another noticeable edit was the appearance of Mr Gatz. He was the only attendant at Gatsby’s funeral (after Carraway) but here, it is only Carraway. I understand the exclusion of his father but I would have like to see Mr Gatz.

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But where this film really succeeds is in visually controlling every scene and enthralling the audience with the extravagance of the ’20s, viewed from a 2013 mindset. All period films are viewed from their production era. Clayton’s The Great Gatsby has a very ’70s feel about it, just as Cabaret‘s ’30s does, Some Like it Hot has a ’50s interpretation of the ’20s and Shakespeare in Love has a ’90s view of 1500s. Luhrmann has created a view of the ’20s that in later years will become synonymous with the 2010s. If the film had been slavish in “accurate” ’20s representation then the audience would take twenty steps back. A film needs to draw an audience in. And I think Luhrmann succeeded here, even helped by the jazz interpreted modern music.

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The true spectacle of the film is through the production and costume design; both under Catherine Martin’s control. It is very unusual for one person to design both the sets and costumes on a film; regular practice in the theatre. There are some great set details that are carried through Gatsby’s mansion, particularly snakes snaking the balcony and twirled round chandeliers. The theatricality is also emphasised with the numerous levels. The sets are full of staircases and balconies with people looking up, down or across vast expanses.

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For me though, it is all about the costumes. Never before has ‘Damn, That’s Some Fine Tailoring’ felt so appropriate here. There may have been great discussion about Daisy’s costumes and connections with Prada but the men’s suits are the real winners here. Martin’s collaboration with Brooks Brothers means for some beautifully cut suits, if it is a little disconcerting that you can buy copies of them not just suits “inspired by”. Having said that, there aren’t many men who could pull of Gatsby’s pink linen suit. Or would want to be associated with such a blatant copy… But anyway. Gatsby’s clothes perfectly fit with that perception of a man playing a role, especially with his walking stick. There is a showy nature to Gatsby’s clothes that could easily be associated with ‘new money’ particularly when compared to Buchanan’s ‘old money’ suits. His are much more refined and subtle in his own way – lots of double-breasted suits and waistcoats. Double-breasted suits give an impression of power and, as such, are often worn by “villains” or “gangsters” and Meyer Wolfsheim is also seen sporting a double-breasted suit. Then you compare this with Carraway’s clothes. His take on a more traditional ‘New England’ feel with lots of tweed and knitwear. As he is a recent graduate of Yale University and a writer trying to sell bonds this all seems like a great fit. And at Brooks Brothers you can buy my favourite piece.

“He wears a pink suit!” Redford’s version in ’74 v. DiCaprio’s in ’13.

With the women’s costumes there is a lot paid to excess. At the parties you can barely concentrate for the beads, sequins, pearls and jewels either on the dresses or worn as jewellery, if not both. Jordan’s costumes follow more strictly to the ’20s shape because she has the figure to pull this off. Daisy and Myrtle’s costumes are a much more fitted vision of the ’20s. For Mulligan this is probably to make the dresses more flattering for her (similar was done with Monroe’s costumes in Some Like it Hot) whereas for Fisher this was to fit with the brash Myrtle character. My main costume upset refers to Myrtle. In the book she is brash and clearly doesn’t fit in with ‘The Valley of Ashes’ with Wilson but here the costumes for when she is actually at the gas station seem too extravagant. Especially for the setting. When she is with Buchanan at her flat, that is fine. But with Wilson? The colours and revealing nature of her costume seem ridiculously out of place – especially when you see his reaction to the realisation of her affair and their subsequent argument. Would Wilson really accept her clothing in his workplace?

This review has got a little away from me with various discussions…but all in all I enjoyed the film and appreciate what Luhrmann tried to accomplish. I can still have some reservations but enjoyment. I felt similarly with Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette, but I prefer this film to that. I still think that the comparison for these two films is a fair assessment – a modern, highly stylised interpretation of a story.

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Oh, and one final note. We saw the film in 3D. I can take or leave 3D in all honesty. There has been much said of the 30% light loss with 3D films. This film is very bright, the colours really do pop. So I have to wonder, what is this like in 2D?

Any other viewers of The Great Gatsby?

S x

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3 thoughts on “Film Review: ‘The Great Gatsby’

  1. Pingback: 5 Different Costume Interpretations of the…1920s | Damn, That's Some Fine Tailoring

  2. Pingback: Awards Week: Costume Design Nominations | Damn, That's Some Fine Tailoring

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