by Sam Gardom
With the financial crisis continues to simmer around the world seemingly without a clear end in sight, very few of us are left unaffected. In such times of drawn out and sensationalised austerity it is inevitably very hard to remember that in the years that led up to the crashing of the markets and ransacking of the national coffers there was a time of great excess. People seemed to have money to burn and, a culture of lavish spending and the capricious materialism shaped public consciousness. The 80s and 90s were our boom years, and is in just such a time, the golden years before the Wall Street crash of 1929, that F. Scott Fitzgerald sets his elegant tale of wealth, deception and aspiring love.
This is the fourth big screen adaptation of a novel that, since its publication in 1925, has spoken to millions despite the ever shifting perceptions and tastes of its audience. Director Baz Luhrmann has described this influential tale of love and loss, set against the brash excesses of the 1920’s as ‘an American Hamlet’, and was inspired to create a modernist adaptation of the piece while listening to the audio book during a train journey through the wastelands of Siberia almost 10 years ago.
His previous works, which have a included a gritty modernist take on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet where the original text juxtaposes the modern and glamorous and the whirling romantic medley that was Moulin Rouge give you some idea of his far-reaching ambitions for this story. Both of these are a wild and electric fusion of colour, music and personality that manage to draw the viewer into a deep and textured world at once far reaching and as personal as a dream that draws the audience in deep. This story, with its vivid portrayal of the impersonal nature of wealth and the delicately nuanced struggles of the individual, therefore lends itself perfectly to Lurhmann’s unique style.
Luhrmann’s idea was this, to make the film as if Fitzgerald were there; taking his satirical style and modernist devices and creating a piece of cinema that embodied these traits in a way that was relatable. Replacing the African American jazz culture of the original and with and more current hip hop theme he tried to highlight the fact that, as he says, “…this book speaks to us now”. The irony of the comparisons that can be drawn between the story and the vulgar excesses of pre-crash America are highlighted using modern music and dance, resulting in a piece that has, he believes, a far more relevant message for an audience today.
The scene is set with sweeping shots of booming New York city swathed in jazz age swing and bubbling champagne starkly contrasting the cinder filled wastelands of the working poor toiling to sustain it, and, amidst it all a rather average young man out to make a life for himself. He stumbles into the life of a secretive millionaire whose seemingly unending wealth and gratuitous hospitality hide a much darker reality. Caught up in this Wurlitzer of parties, money and shallow affections he is thrust into the tangled intrigue that surrounds Gatsby’s quest to rewrite his past.
Some excellent character performances and an incredible level of attention to detail with amazing costumes and locations throughout make this film a real treat to watch.
The result is so nearly an incredible piece of cinema, it is only let down by the inclusion of certain ‘modernising’ devices, mainly musical, whose clumsiness jar slightly with the films sleek beauty. And the question still remains, would F. Scott Fitzgerald see this 3D multimillion dollar epic as a fitting modernisation of his most famous work, or simply another product of the vacuous capitalist society which it reviles?