Film Blasphemy: Gatsby

Will Spencer 24 January 2014

I was sceptical when I first heard about the latest adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s seminal novel The Great Gatsby. Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, renowned for splurges of sentimental overacting in nauseous blockbusters like Titanic, with Jay-Z as artistic director, this was mainstream Gatsby, focussing on big-screen popularity at the expense of the novel’s nuances.

Despite loving the novel, though, the film did not disappoint. Frankly, the film’s freshness was such that it proved the novel’s equal. For the purists, the film is blasphemous, turning countless shades of grey into hard-hitting black and white realities, therein almost entirely dispensing with subtlety. However, forthright director Baz Luhrmann manages to stumble upon the heart of the society portrayed by Fitzgerald. ‘Rainbow’ and ‘kaleidoscopic’ don’t come close to describing the full-on impact of the gaudy excesses with which we are presented, delightfully extravagant.

This impression is sustained by the acting, whose understatement had been the downfall of the previous adaptation. Toby Maguire is as annoying as always as Nick Carraway, which explains his character’s insignificance. Conversely, Leo’s panache as Gatsby is unexpected. Gatsby’s veneer of self-assurance is betrayed as not only hiding an obsessive single-mindedness, but also a deep desire for human warmth; partly ‘poetic license’, but it gives Gatsby’s fixation a humanity which makes it all the more fascinating.

Carey Mulligan’s melodramatic tone likewise captures the essence of Daisy, simultaneously shallow and vulnerable. The interplay between Daisy and Gatsby elevates the film to previously unbeknown heights. Luhrmann may largely ignore the foreboding message at the core of Fitzgerald’s novel, but he dramatises the story of flawed love within with potent poignancy. With a roaring soundtrack, in which Lana Del Rey’s songs work particularly well, Luhrmann reworks Gatsby’s legacy into a separate, powerful work of art. That, surely, is the true mark of an adaptation’s success, far beyond a religious aping of the original.