Lavish and contemporary retelling of a classic

09:09 PM Jun 01, 2019 | Free Press Journal Correspondant

Baz Luhrmann was wrong when he told film journalists at Cannes that American author F Scott Fitzgerald was alone and marginalised when he wrote The Great Gatsby, a novella that is set in the Roaring Twenties. You should know such literary luminaries as Ernest Hemingway, T. S. Eliot and Gertrude Stein had immediately showered FSF’s new novel with praise.

Unfortunately, the high esteem in which FSF’s fellow authors held The Great Gatsby did not


transfer to critics like H L Mencken who dismissed it as “glorified anecdote” or the reading public as sales remained abysmally low. And then, much in the manner of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, The Great Gatsby was resurrected to the status of a literary classic.


There have been six adaptations of the book, including Luhrman’s. I have seen only the 1974 version starring Robert Redford, Mia Farrow, and Bruce Dern. Luhrmann infuses the classic with the same verve and cinematic energy that he gave to Moulin Rouge, Australia and Strictly Ballroom.

His version starts with the narrator Nick (Maguire) Carraway recalling the time when he as penniless, wannabe writer went to Long Island, New York. The year was 1922, a time of decadence, bootlegging and jazz, a time when ” the morals were looser … the liquor cheaper”. Nick rents a small cottage adjoining the palatial home of a mysterious, party-animal named Jay (Di Caprio) Gatsby. Across the bay lives his pretty blonde cousin, Daisy (Mulligan) her wealthy, aristocratic husband Tom (Edgerton) Buchanan and their girl-child.

Nick is invited by Gatsby to a party filled with gatecrashers. Later, we come to know that Gatsby has been hosting these parties in the hope that Daisy will show up. The two share a past which Gatsby has hung on to through years of deprivation (of poverty), violence (of war) and excess (of wealth beyond his wildest dreams). But there is one dream that he has yet to realise: Daisy. It is not a menage-a-trois for old-money Tom is a womaniser and nouveau-riche Gatsby is a one-woman man.

And Nick is the narrator of this tragedy, this tale of impossible love, and a corrupt man’s incorruptible dream of love. Not to put too fine a point on it, The Great Gatsby holds a mirror to contemporary times. The film’s framing device – Nick recalls Gatsby’s story while he is recovering at a sanatorium for drug and alcohol addicts is unique to Luhrman. As is the 3D. Set to a contemporary hip-hop soundtrack (Jay Z, Beyonce) instead of period jazz, the film luxuriates in the opulence of Gatsby’s lavish parties at his mansion. There are also beautiful shots of nature, by day and night.

Edgerton plays Tom as a nasty, scheming pig. DiCaprio is Gatsby, his obsession with Daisy proves love is blind, even as the object of his affections proves to be brittle and shallow. Luhrmann’s version of Fitzgerald’s novel captures their different facets. When Daisy cries on receiving Gatsby’s letter on her wedding day, it is not, as we learn later, because he is unable to return and claim her, but because he is penniless.

She tells Gatsby she wants the (adulterous) relationship to last forever but he wants commitment and when he is unable to withstand Tom’s taunts about his character and the source of his wealth, he shows a feral side that unnerves Daisy. The shallow social butterfly, the raison détre for Jay Gatsby’s existence, prefers marriage to the blue-blooded, philandering Tom.

Our very own Amitabh Bachchan stands out in a cameo role as Gatsby’s mentor, the crime lord, Meyer Wolfsheim. From gait to accent, Bachchan excels. The characters are universal: Gatsby, Daisy, Tom and Nick hold a mirror to all that is base and low about ourselves: our corrupt, shallow, selfish, lying, manipulative, vacuous, immoral selves.

Like the book, Luhrmann’s adaptation showcases themes of aspiration, illusion, love and loss in the quest for the American Dream. In its titular hero buffeted by the slings and arrows of misfortune, The Great Gatsby underlines the pain and heartbreak of the failure to bridge the yawning chasm between dream and reality.

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