The amount of copy being lavished pro and con Baz Luhrmann's over-reaching adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby is enough to make you forget that it's just a film we're talking about here, not the be-all and end-all of modern cinematic art. It's true that the novel's status as a classic of American (and, indeed, world) literature is such that any attempt at filming it - and there have been enough attempts that fell short - is conjuring sacrilege merely by existing. And, obviously, the Australian director's baroque, excessive, kinetic style, seen as a charmingly irreverent dinner mint when he started out scrappily with Strictly Ballroom, became too much to critics and observers as he grew in ambition and budgets.

     Deep down, of course, Mr. Luhrmann is a showman extraordinaire, a Ziegfeld-type magician who wants to be taken seriously as a filmmaker, reconciling art and commerce, public and press, while running the gantlet of flippant, mordant putdowns from "serious" writers. That is exactly what makes The Great Gatsby perfect material for the director: just as Mr. Luhrmann's giddy overdoses of pop-culture-makeovers can seem gaudy show-offs, nouveau-riche grandstanding appropriating high culture in flamboyantly low ways, so is Jay Gatsby's reputation. The mysterious millionaire of pre-Great Depression New York builds an oversized monument to his secret love in the demonstrating mansion and the grand parties he gives there, all as a means to win back the girl he lost because he didn't come from "old money" or "old blood".

     In many ways, the director has forced his way into the "big boys club" by sheer force of will and grandiose displays of budget just as Gatsby does - and there is in The Great Gatsby something of the make-or-break film, especially since Mr. Luhrmann is playing here again the trump card of theatrical, over-signified tragedy he refined throughout his "red carpet trilogy" (and particularly in the masterful Moulin Rouge!), with the help of DP Simon Duggan's glossy, misty cinematography and the luxurious designs of wife and creative partner Catherine Martin. Yet, much in keeping with the source novel and, in fact, with a whole pan of period literature and cinema (especially the British heritage film), his version of Gatsby is a tragedy of love intertwined with class and money. Gatsby (a lovely performance from a confident, subtle Leonardo di Caprio), the epitome of the smooth operator if there ever was one, finds his life unraveling through his yearning for true love to bring light into his existence.

     The basic flaw in Mr. Luhrmann's approach, however, is that, though it's all about love, love itself hardly factors in the film. Or rather, it is shifted from the romantic and sexual roundelays orbiting Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan, wan and distracted) and her boorish husband Tom (Joel Edgerton, pitch-perfect), towards the fascination that narrator Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire, endearing) has for Gatsby. Nick recognises in Gatsby the man who has it all and synthesizes within himself all the virtues of the early 20th century man, and ends up being the millionaire's truest friend, thus filing The Great Gatsby into the recent category of the "bromance", that uneasy combination of friendship, brotherhood, admiration and fragility that has risen in modern film.

     Of course, the tale was always called The Great Gatsby, yet it is incredibly clear just how much Daisy - and indeed every other female character - are mere sketched, background figures here, to make way for a masculine battle of wills between Gatsby and Tom, with Nick as the observer who takes the true measure of both men. Both of them will stoop as low as they can in the name of the love they seem to hold in such high esteem but actually is no more than another trophy to range alongside polo awards or fine silk shirts. It's a masculine, almost primal fight, perfectly choreographed by Messrs. Di Caprio and Edgerton, underlining even more Mr. Luhrmann's approach of slowing down the film's tempo as the plot grows ever more dramatic.

     Starting out as a carefree, frantic jazz-age/hip-hop mash-up revelry that comes on like a rehash of the Moulin Rouge! concept, The Great Gatsby decelerates into a series of ravishingly filmed, if occasionally stilted, chamber set pieces, some of which (the central revelatory group scene at the hotel, where the truth comes out) are perfectly judged and excellently performed. For all that, though, there is certainly a sense that Mr. Luhrmann's theatrical tendencies may occasionally drown the human story at its heart, even if the book itself traded in the same dissonance between facade and interior. Yet the director has taken the bull by the horns in his very own way and come out bloody but unbowed, and by no means undiminished. This may not be the definitive Gatsby, but it's a solid, tantalizing take on it.

Cast: Leonardo di Caprio, Tobey Maguire, Carey Mulligan, Joel Edgerton, Isla Fisher, Jason Clarke, Elizabeth Debicki, Jack Thompson, Amitabh Bachchan
Director: Baz Luhrmann
Screenplay: Mr. Luhrmann, Craig Pearce, from the novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
Cinematography: Simon Duggan  (colour, widescreen, 3D)
Music: Craig Armstrong
Production and costume designer: Catherine Martin
Editors: Matt Villa, Jason Ballantine, Jonathan Redmond
Visual effects: Chris Godfrey
Producers: Mr. Luhrmann, Ms. Martin, Douglas Wick, Lucy Fisher, Catherine Knapman (Warner Bros. Pictures, Bazmark Film and Red Wagon Entertainment in association with Village Roadshow Pictures and A&E Television)
Australia/USA, 2013, 142 minutes

Screened: distributor advance press screening, UCI El Corte Inglés 12 (Lisbon), May 13th 2013


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