3.5 stars
When Baz Luhrmann’s Strictly Ballroom was screened in the open-air plaza at Locarno Film Festival in 1992, those in the audience felt a ripple of excitement course through the crowd. Here was a refreshingly off-beat approach to film-making, in which the director was prepared to take risks and take his audience on a rollercoaster ride. In his subsequent films, Luhrmann’s cart has only spun off the rails once (with Australia), so it was with great anticipation that many movie-goers waited to see his adaption of a novel that is ranked among the great works of American literature – The Great Gatsby. And, once again, he has managed to take us on one of his crazy rides, this time into the decadent excesses of the Jazz Age.

Based on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s eponymous novel, Lurhmann’s and Craig Pearce’s screenplay has retained the thread of the story with an elaborate vision that is perfectly enhanced by Catherine Martin’s fabulous costumes and production design. From the glorious opening titles to the closing credits, there is not a moment in this 3D extravaganza where you can take your eyes off the screen. Perhaps this is the only downfall of the film, as it is so elaborate you can’t quite take it all in at once. Maybe like Moulin Rouge, it requires a second viewing further down the track.

Set in the summer of 1922, in a fictitious place called West Egg, on Long Island, NY, the millionaire Jay Gatsby (Leonardo Di Caprio – Inception / Titanic), stares across the water from his fabulous mansion to East Egg, where the object of his desire resides in the form of Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan – Drive / An Education). Jay’s next-door neighbour, likeable Yale graduate Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire – Spider Man / Cider House Rules) is an “old sport” who Jay met when they were in the army in World War I and who just happens to be Daisy’s cousin. Jay manages to coerce Nick to set up a meeting with Daisy and he sets out to win her heart… again, as it turns out. However, as in all good tales, life wasn’t meant to be easy; even Jay’s enormous wealth and fabulous parties may not be enough to make Daisy flee her current lavish life-style with her philandering husband, Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton – Wish You Were Here / Zero Dark Thirty).

This is a cautionary tale indeed as the story becomes more involved and the intensity increases, aided by Craig Armstrong’s and Jay-Z’s impressive soundtrack and Simon Duggan’s (I Robot / Killer Elite) equally impressive, albeit frenetic cinematography. The two leads, DiCaprio and Mulligan, are perfectly pitched, so it is easy to believe in their passionate relationship. They are backed up by a very strong cast of mainly Aussie actors, in both major and minor roles, which includes the aforementioned Edgerton, Home and Away alumnus Isla Fisher (Rango / Wedding Crashers), VCA graduate, new-comer Elizabeth Debicki (A Few Best Men), and veteran Bill Young (Matrix / Chopper) as a copper who, in one line, manages to give a whole new reading of the word “blue.” Mention must be made, too, of the fine performance given by the great Bollywood actor Amitabh Bachchan, as one of Jay’s less savoury business associates, Meyer Wolfsheim.

The question needs to be asked, “Where does Luhrmann go from here?” Having opened the Cannes Film Festival this year and divided the critics with The Great Gatsby, one can only hope that he has another idea on the boil that will be just as contentious. Let’s face it, not many directors out there can utterly transport you into a visual fantasy for 142 minutes. This Jazz Age extravaganza makes one’s life at home seem very distant and that’s gotta be worth this trip to the cinema.


Previewed at Event Cinemas, George Street, Sydney, on 27 May 2013

3.5 stars
Opening the Cannes Film Festival after a critical mauling in the US, Baz Luhrmann's take on the great American novel was watched very carefully. Though it featured more for its star power than artistic merit (the festival has opened to Oceans 13 after all), it was greeted with an anticipated collective shrug. But really, what do the critics know? If box office is the true measure of acclaim then Luhrmann is the man of this or any other moment, with The Great Gatsby taking a bow at the Number 1 slot and the biggest weekend opener for an Australian film. Take that, Hollywood Reporter.

Claims that his flamboyant style was unsuited to the material, at best a fit for broad comedy and not the tragic drama he's so fond of making, fall short of the mark if this critic knows anything. F. Scott Fitzgerald's acclaimed novel is as much a searing drama of unrequited love as it is a comment on aspirational classes and a poisonous American dream shielded by position (new or otherwise) which Gatsby epitomises. Factor in the outrageous displays of wealth and The Great Gatsby is a story fit for Luhrmann's uncompromising, eye-catching style.

As observed by Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire), the wide-eyed neighbour of enigmatic billionaire Jay Gatsby (Leonardo Di Caprio), The Great Gatsby is the tragic story of a poor rich man who is undone by the potential of what he can never have, a woman, Daisy (Carey Mulligan) whom as coincidence has it, is Nick's cousin. Unhappily married to a blue-blooded adulterer (Joel Edgerton), she's re-seduced by Gatsby now that her former lover has charm and money. That's until the men force Daisy to make a stand and, well, this is tragedy. It can only end badly.

Enroute, under Luhrmann's assured if frenetic, fussy and trinket-filled direction, The Great Gatsby treads the ground between sweeping romance, bold drama and music video. His fondness for mixing genre and tone with visual noodlings and violently anachronistic music (notably Jay Z's hip hop inclusions) is an inspired match for the story, borne from culturally revolutionary times. These 'modern' methods also point to Fitzgerald's political themes without wasting too much effort on the philosophical landscape (there are nods, but this is not Luhrmann's strongest suit). Add 3D production and the film is served up with a magical realism that mostly envelopes the viewer (there are distracting moments of Disneyficaton – sometimes it seems Baz just can't help himself).

Australian audiences will find pleasure in playing spot-the-local in support roles: Barry Otto on the dance floor, Jason Clarke as the put upon George Wilson. Shorn of his boyish looks, Di Caprio brings the right measure of gravitas and naivety to the lead role, Maguire is solid as disillusioned Carraway but the finest moments go to Edgerton's brooding turn as family money who will not tolerate the wife-grabber, a little because Daisy is property but mostly because Gatsby is a showy financial upstart. It's enough to turn blue blood red with anger.

The Great Gatsby is not to everyone's taste (particularly New Yorker's who will not tolerate showy, Antipodean upstarts tampering with their novel), but if you're willing to accept a Bazmark film for what it is – a sumptuous extravaganza that cheerfully takes the past and throws it screaming into the future – then here's a film for you: an uncompromising adaptation of a great American novel; part comedy, part tragedy, all Luhrmann.


Previewed at Cinema Place De L'Horloge, Avignon, on 1 June 2013


Leonardo Di Caprio
Tobey Maguire
Carey Mulligan
Joel Edgerton

Baz Luhrmann

Baz Luhrmann
Craig Pearce

Australia / USA


142 minutes

May 30, 2013
The Great Gatsby (2013) on IMDb
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