The Great Gatsby may just be the most highly anticipated film of 2013, bringing an abundance of Luhrmann’s trademark glitz and glamour to the fourth screen adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1926 novel. Filming in Sydney, Luhrmann has truly made an effort to reel in the big shots with names like Leonardo Dicaprio, Toby Maguire and Carey Mulligan – though he keeps it home-grown by the presence of Australians Joel Edgerton, Isla Fisher and Elizabeth Debicki. Despite magnificent visuals, the film’s real focus is the nostalgia for what was, and the impossible dream of holding onto something that is entirely transient. It is this universality that gives the film its resonance.
Toby Maguire is narrator Nick Carraway, from whose perspective we see the events unfold. The tragic heart of the film, however, beyond all the glitter and decadence, lies in the chemistry between Mulligan and Dicaprio. They are absolutely intoxicating. A melancholic hope seems to perpetually radiate from the two of them as the tragedy of the story unfolds. An underlying conflict between darkness and hope is reflected in that layers of fog that swirl around them, pervading the entire film. Dicaprio is at his finest as the enigmatic Jay Gatsby, and Mulligan is utterly transformed as the cynical, disenchanted Daisy Buchanan. The real man of the film, meanwhile, is neither Dicaprio nor Maguire: Joel Edgerton shines as the viciously brutal Tom Buchanan, Daisy’s philandering husband.
The material is perfect for Luhrmann’s visually epic style, and The Great Gatsby is beyond self-indulgent, with Tiffany & Co. diamonds, Prada dresses and plenty of would-be subtle subliminal advertising for Moet & Chandon champagne. The richness of the visuals and sets contrast dramatically with the emotional thread of human feeling and social discontent that runs through the film. Nonetheless, the clarity of each character’s emotions and actions is breathtaking. The shallowness of the 1920s Jazz Age comes to mirror the shallowness of the 21st century, the two eras united by the prevailing spectre of over-(conspicuous)consumption – of alcohol, sex, music, and money. This is made more cognisant by the use of Jay-Z as the producer of the soundtrack, on which hip-hop and dance mingle with alternative heavyweights like the XX, Lana del Rey and Florence and the Machine to pair the high-energy, high-class music of today with the excesses of the Roaring Twenties. The party scenes at Gatsby’s Mansion, underscored by the sounds of Jay-Z and Florence, have a disturbing yet enthralling adrenaline behind them.
Indeed, the whole film is thrumming with life. Underneath all the glamour and pounding music, a quieter story follows how the various characters’ relationships and feelings come apart. The visuals and the soundtrack are essential as contrasting factors, as paradoxically they lay the human emotions bare for all to see. The real point, it becomes clear, is to show us the tragic consequences of our actions. While it is superficially just another Luhrmann epic, there is something more tangible here than what we saw in Australia, Romeo + Juliet or Moulin Rouge.