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DAVID STRAT­TON RE­VIEWS THE GREAT GATSBY

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Front Page - David Strat­ton

THE Great Gatsby, which many think is the great Amer­i­can novel, was pub­lished in 1925. Al­most im­me­di­ately, Para­mount pro­duced a film based on F. Scott Fitzger­ald’s book. Re­leased in 1926, it starred Warner Bax­ter — a heart-throb in the silent era — but, like many late silent films, it is now lost, though a trailer for it that in­cludes the in­evitable wild party scene still can be seen.

It wasn’t un­til 1949 that Para­mount tried again. El­liott Nu­gent, who di­rected the sec­ond ver­sion, was mainly a di­rec­tor of come­dies, and this was one of his few at­tempts to make some­thing more sub­stan­tial. De­spite the fine per­for­mance of the very pop­u­lar Alan Ladd as Gatsby, the film was not a suc­cess but, in­ter­est­ingly, it made no bones about ele­ments of the story only hinted at in the book and the other film ver­sions: in Nu­gent’s film Gatsby is a gang­ster. We even see him, ma­chine­gun in hand, shoot­ing down un­seen en­e­mies from a mov­ing car like a scene out of Scar­face. Nu­gent was never con­sid­ered a ma­jor di­rec­tor, so the fail­ure of his ver­sion came as no real sur­prise, though it should be bet­ter known if only for the per­for­mances of Ladd and Shel­ley Win­ters, whose Myr­tle Wil­son was gen­uinely mov­ing.

By the time Para­mount tried for a third time it was 1974 and movies had changed. Cen­sor­ship was more re­laxed, Amer­i­can cin­ema was go­ing through an out­stand­ing pe­riod ( Chi­na­town was also made in 1974) and the film had an ac­com­plished di­rec­tor: English­man Jack Clay­ton was highly re­garded for Room at

the Top and The In­no­cents. Plus the film starred Robert Red­ford as Gatsby and this was not long af­ter Red­ford’s role in Butch Cassidy and the

Sun­dance Kid and The Sting had made him a big star.

Yet some­thing didn’t work. Clay­ton was faith­ful to the book but it is a dif­fi­cult one to film, some would sug­gest im­pos­si­ble, re­ly­ing so much as it does on the nar­ra­tion of the Nick Car­raway char­ac­ter, an ob­server through whose some­what be­mused eyes we meet all the main char­ac­ters of the drama. Sam Water­ston played the role in Clay­ton’s film and he was per­fectly ac­cept­able — but the re­sult was strangely in­ert; a long, care­ful, de­cent and frankly rather bor­ing love story ac­com­pa­nied by the melan­choly strains of the song What’ll

I Do?.

Baz Luhrmann was never go­ing to be bor­ing. Show­man­ship is his stock in trade. He’s an old-fash­ioned three-ring cir­cus kind of en­ter­tainer and highly ef­fec­tive at what he does. He brought a fresh vi­sion to Shake­speare’s Romeo + Juliet that worked well in its

own terms and if Moulin Rouge! turned out to be a mu­si­cal for peo­ple who don’t much like

mu­si­cals and Aus­tralia was a spec­tac­u­larly alarm­ing throw­back to spec­ta­cle films of an­other era, at least he was set­ting out to en­ter­tain on a large scale.

He does so again with The Great Gatsby. Purists may cry that this is not the book that Fitzger­ald wrote, but Luhrmann is true to the book’s spirit. It’s just that where Fitzger­ald chose to be am­bigu­ous and enig­matic, Luhrmann takes the op­po­site ap­proach. He spells ev­ery­thing out in large let­ters. Sub­tlety is not in his vo­cab­u­lary. You can ac­cuse him of a lot of things but I doubt that any­one watch­ing his new film will be bored.

In the adap­ta­tion he wrote with his reg­u­lar col­lab­o­ra­tor, Craig Pearce, the story is book­ended by a visit Car­raway (Tobey Maguire, well cast as a self-ef­fac­ing ob­server) pays to a doc­tor (Jack Thomp­son), who tells him to write ev­ery­thing down. As he starts to do so, words and let­ters spin out of the screen to­wards the au­di­ence and the story, set in 1922, be­gins with Nick rent­ing a small cot­tage at West Egg on Long Is­land Sound and vis­it­ing his cousin, rav­ish­ingly beau­ti­ful Daisy (Carey Mul­li­gan), her hus­band Tom Buchanan (Joel Edger­ton), an as­sertive, wealthy brag­gart and bigot, and their friend Jor­dan (El­iz­a­beth De­bicki), a golf cham­pion and a haughty mem­ber of this priv­i­leged group of peo­ple.

The Buchanans live in a grand house op­po­site, across the wa­ter, that of Nick and his next-door neigh­bour, Jay Gatsby. The name of Gatsby is on the lips of many peo­ple. He’s im­mensely rich and he’s ex­tremely mys­te­ri­ous; where did he come from and where did he make his money? Is he from a wealthy back­ground, was he re­ally ed­u­cated at Ox­ford and if so is that where he picked up the af­fected phrase ‘‘ Old sport’’ that he uses so reg­u­larly? Did he re­ally win a heap of medals for brav­ery dur­ing the war, in­clud­ing one from Mace­do­nia? Has he killed any­one? Is he, per­haps, a boot­leg­ger?

Be­fore any of this can be re­solved, the quiet plod­ding Nick, who has an of­fice job nearby in the city, is made privy to a se­cret in­volv­ing Tom. Tom has a mistress, Myr­tle Wil­son (Isla Fisher), a brassy woman whose hus­band, Ge­orge (Ja­son Clarke), runs a garage in a waste­land of refuse and de­crepit chaos be­tween the lux­ury of Long Is­land and the so­phis­ti­ca­tion of New York City. There, be­neath a de­cay­ing poster for an oculist fea­tur­ing a pair of star­ing be­spec­ta­cled eyes, Myr­tle lives un­hap­pily with Ge­orge and, when­ever pos­si­ble, meets Tom in the city in the hideously over-dec­o­rated apart­ment he rents for her.

It’s here that the dif­fi­dent Nick takes part, al­beit un­will­ingly, in a sort of orgy. And it’s be­cause he knows about Myr­tle that he’s more will­ing to be com­pli­ant when Gatsby, who has in­vited him to one of his sump­tu­ously lav­ish par­ties, asks him a favour con­cern­ing Daisy.

It’s easy to see that the stag­ing of the leg­endary par­ties at Gatsby’s man­sion was in no small part what at­tracted Luhrmann to the pro­ject. With the vi­tal as­sis­tance of his part­ner and col­lab­o­ra­tor, Cather­ine Martin, who de­signed the sets and cos­tumes, Luhrmann has a ball with the ex­cesses of the Jazz Age, cre­at­ing a wild sin­gin’, dancin’ party to end them all. If at times The Great Gatsby feels like a wannabe mu­si­cal, the party scenes con­trib­ute most to this im­pres­sion.

And it’s at the party that Nick at­tends that we first meet Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio), bronzed, blue-eyed, hand­some, charm­ing — as we (and Nick) see him for the first time fire­works ex­plode be­hind him and the cli­max of Gersh­win’s Rhap­sody in Blue ex­plodes on the sound­track. Again, it’s an in­dul­gent, way over-the-top mo­ment, al­most laugh­able in its ex­cess — yet, for Luhrmann, this is why Gatsby is great, and this is what it’s all about.

And so Nick dis­cov­ers that Gatsby and Daisy knew each other be­fore she mar­ried Tom and that he ac­quired this house across the sound just to be close to her, to stand on the dock and look across the wa­ter at the pale green light blink­ing at the end of the Buchanan pier.

In this of­ten ex­haust­ing film, it’s the in­ti­mate mo­ments that count most. At first they’re few and far be­tween. Luhrmann and his edit­ing team seem to be­lieve that no in­di­vid­ual im­age should last longer than a nano-sec­ond, and as a re­sult the over-edited early scenes flash by with an­noy­ing speed. In the sec­ond half of the film Luhrmann thank­fully al­lows more time, time for his film to breathe — and in the end his Gatsby is sur­pris­ingly mov­ing.

Un­ex­pect­edly, given the de­lib­er­ate anachro­nisms (Bey­once and Jay Z num­bers along­side vin­tage songs of the 1920s), the over­all film works bet­ter than you might ex­pect. The 3-D is used with style and skill, al­low­ing the depth and the space of the scenes to im­pose them­selves. And the cast is pretty good, with Edger­ton a stand­out as the bom­bas­tic Tom.

For Aus­tralian au­di­ences there are spe­cial treats: a gallery of lo­cal act­ing tal­ent, some seen in mi­nor roles (Heather Mitchell as Daisy’s mother, Max Cullen as an el­derly guest at a Gatsby party, Felix Wil­liamson as a but­ler) while oth­ers have the small­est cameos (Steve Bis­ley, Barry Otto, Luhrmann him­self).

There’s no point in wish­ing Luhrmann wouldn’t be so ex­ces­sive; ex­ces­sive is in his DNA. Ac­cept that and there’s much to en­joy in his Gatsby. What Fitzger­ald would make of it is any­one’s guess.

Leonardo DiCaprio as the enig­matic Jay Gatsby; be­low, Tobey Maguire, left, El­iz­a­beth De­bicki and Joel Edger­ton

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