My cousin and I saw Baz Luhrman’s latest effort, The Great Gatsby, last night, and I have to say I was really impressed. Baz Luhrman is a filmmaker of grand design–witness his Moulin Rouge!, Australia and Romeo and Juliet. He likes to do big movies in big ways. However, while there are touches of that in Gatsby, this is probably his most restrained and “normal” film, focusing on the slim classic of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s and the characters that populate it.
His unique touch to the story is a framing device–placing narrator Nick Carraway (Tobye Maguire) in a sanitarium, where he’s undergoing treatment for alcoholism, depression, and anxiety, and where Nick writes the story of Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio), Daisy (Carey Mulligan), Tom (Joel Edgerton) and himself. I know some Fitzgerald Purists don’t like this, but I think it works well and allows us to hear Nick’s narration in the context of the story he’s writing, as opposed to a disembodied, distracting narration a la Bella in the last Twilight film (where this narration is used to skim over chunks of material and leads to slightly disjointed storytelling).
The story is familiar to almost everyone, but in case you don’t know it–Nick is a Midwest boy who’s come to NYC amidst the Roaring Twenties to work on Wall Street and make his fortune fresh out of college. He buys a small place on Long Island, near his cousin Daisy and her husband, Tom. But his next door neighbor quickly draws his attention and curiosity with the large, incredibly elaborate parties he throws all weekend, every weekend. Who is this Jay Gatsby?
Luhrman’s film design is impeccable, especially in the Valley of the Ashes sequences (a place that has critical importance in the last act of the novel). The contrast from lush, green, decadent West and East Egg and the Valley is startling, as it should be. The iconic optometry billboard is also used to great dramatic effect. And the costumes? Amazing.
There have been some comments about the pacing of the film. I didn’t find this to be a problem at all, and bad pacing is one of my huge pet peeves. Luhrman sets his canvas and then lets the characters interact, with devastating consequences. The high emotional points are balanced with moments of exposition and lower-key scenes.
Let’s talk about the acting. I have to say I was expecting very little coming into this; I’ve never been a huge Leo fan (even though I was the prime age for Titanic swoonery, back in the 90s.). He does, however, a great job as the obsessed Gatsby, who’s entire purpose in life is to recapture Daisy, through whatever means possible. His character arc, from the smooth, champagne toting host to disheveled, possessed lover is very well-done. Tobey Maguire brings his wide-eyed quality to the role and fits it perfectly. The other observer to this drama, professional golfer Jordan Baker (played by Elizabeth Debicki, in her first big film role), Daisy’s best friend, tries on the patina of boredom and c’est la vie common to her social circle, but really probably has more in common with Nick than Tom.
Joel Edgerton (The Odd Life of Timothy Green, Star Wars Episode III) is cast as our “villain”, Tom Buchanan. He does a great job showing that Tom isn’t a monster. He’s probably a very typical married man for his time. Yes, he has affairs, most notably with Myrtle Wilson (Isla Fisher), the wife of his mechanic. But, as he says later, he “always comes home.” He treats Daisy well, for the most part, and genuinely loves her, but he doesn’t realize that what he’s doing is slowly destroying Daisy’s heart. That doesn’t make him a great guy. In fact, his actions lead directly to Gatsby’s death, and he has a deep desire to avoid consequences for his actions, which is why he lets Gatsby take the fall for the affair with Myrtle, which George (her husband) knew she was having. Nick says near the end that Daisy and Tom both broke thing carelessly and then left them. They’re both guilty of this.
Speaking of Daisy–let’s talk about Daisy.
Daisy is a very polarizing character. A lot of people hate her, based on the novel. And last night I sort of wrestled with this, because coming out I said to my cousin, “Oh, now I remember why I hate Daisy.” But I don’t think I do, especially as played by Mulligan.
Daisy is between a rock and a hard place. The love she had with Gatsby colored her entire early life; he was her first love. But when pressured by Gatsby to say she never loved her husband, she can’t do it. Daisy does love Tom, even with his faults, and even though he lacks the dashing glamour of Gatsby. They have a daughter, and they have a good life. In the end, she realizes that she can’t leave everything she’s built with her husband–whom she does love–and live with Gatsby. She’s matured beyond that and knows she can’t throw everything away.
Does she truly love Gatsby? Probably. In the Plaza Hotel scene, she says she loves both of them. But Gatsby isn’t a part of her life any more, for all his living across the bay and staring at the green light on her dock. She’s not the same person she was.
Mulligan shows us Daisy’s regret in the climactic scene. Gatsby has called her house, begging to talk to her, and Daisy, Tom, and their daughter are below, preparing to leave Long Island (for good? We don’t know.). Daisy hears the butler talking to Gatsby, and has a look on her face that’s hard to explain. I interpreted it as she loves Gatsby, and she doesn’t want to hurt him, but she has to do what’s best for her and her family now. She has to move on.
Daisy did love him. But she doesn’t–she can’t–anymore. And throughout the end of the film Gatsby’s behavior has become erratic and controlling, so you can see why Daisy may have felt endangered by him.
Now, Daisy isn’t a paragon of womanhood. She is immature and a bit spoiled, and has many pretensions. She doesn’t take responsibility for what she does (when she runs over Myrtle, for example). She expects other people to clean up her messes, as Nick says. But I think she does genuinely regret hurting Gatsby.
In the end, everyone makes a mess of themselves. Maybe only Jordan and Nick are entirely blameless. But the film does great credit to the book, and should most certainly be a contender come next year’s Oscars. It’s a movie about grown-ups (or semi-grown-ups), the choices we make, and how we deal with them–or don’t, in Gatsby’s case.
“You can’t live in the past,” Nick tells Gatsby at the end of his last, lavish party–the last time Nick would see him alive. But Gatsby is trying, desperately, to do just that. Daisy doesn’t. She wants to move forward with her life, even if that means leaving Gatsby behind.