The uncertainties of 1919 were over. America was going on the greatest, gaudiest spree in history — F Scott Fitzgerald
And his novel gave one of the greatest accounts of life in the fast lane of the twenties — so should you see the latest film version of his novel? Our film critic has been and seen, and here’s his advice —
‘A slice of life in the wild Twenties’By Roger Childs
The 1920s in the United States are known as ‘The Jazz Age’ or ‘The Age of Ballyhoo’. After the privations of World War One and the post-war recession, well-off Americans were ready to let their hair down. F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby is one of the country’s iconic novels and is the quintessential reflection of the decade.
Set in the summer of 1922, it tells the story of the rise and fall of Jay Gatsby against a background of a rising stock market, sumptuous homes, bootleg liquor and wild parties. It was a great time for the restless minority who had the wealth to enjoy it. As Fitzgerald puts it: The restlessness reached hysteria. The parties were bigger. The pace was faster, the shows were broader, the buildings were higher, the morals were looser and the liquor was cheaper…
This latest film is the fifth movie version of the story and probably the best. It has had its fair share of critics, but as Fitzgerald scholar Richard J Childs puts it: Perhaps the trick is not expecting it to be somehow more than the book. It’s a nearly perfect adaptation in my view.
Looking back to the summer of 1922
The tale is told by easy going and impressionable Nick Carraway, confessing all to a doctor at a drying out sanitorium, as he recovers from alcoholism and depression. (The winter of the confession contrasts nicely with the summer of the story.) He has a job in New York as a bonds broker and after moving to a modest house on Long Island discovers that he lives next to a ‘castle’ inhabited by the mysterious Jay Gatsby. Gatsby befriends Nick, with the objective of using him to become reconciled with his pre-war sweetheart Daisy, now Mrs Daisy Buchanan.
The impeccably dressed Gatsby lives directly opposite the sumptuous residence of the Buchanans across the bay and he throws extravagant parties to show off his wealth, status and generosity, but most of all to entice Daisy into his lair... I like big parties. They’re so intimate. At small parties there isn’t any privacy. His ‘house’ is complete with magnificent gardens, massive rooms, rafts of servants and a gigantic swimming pool.
The Buchanans represent ‘old money,’ but Gatsby is definitely nouveau riche and it is quickly apparent that his wealth is based on bootleg liquor. He has actually come from a poor farming background and as a penniless ex-soldier back from World War One, was unable to offer Daisy the comfortable existence she was born into. Four years later, will she now succumb to Gatsby’s charms and leave her possessive and unfaithful husband Tom?
Portraying the excesses and social realities of the Twenties
Director Baz Luhrmann makes a meal of the excesses of the Twenties with a rollicking, rollercoaster of a movie. Much of the time the pace is frenetic befitting the age and there are some wonderful set pieces such as
- the lavish wild parties attended by hundreds of flappers and their escorts
- the speedy and highly dangerous driving in the souped-up cars of the time
- the excessive drinking of the bootleg booze
- the aerial views of the glittering lights of 1920s New York.
However there are also some nice touches of social commentary. Black Americans are shown as second class citizens: shifting coal, as domestic servants and performing as dancers and band players for the wild parties. There is also a bleak industrial landscape on the way from Long Island to the city which highlights the reality that most Americans did not share the wealth of the time. Furthermore the shallowness of the age is apparent in ‘the live for the moment’ attitude of the hard drinking, gaudily dressed, white minority.
Simon Duggan’s cinematography is superb and he varies the play with a range of close-ups of the partying, aerial shots of the big city, vertical sequences of the fast moving automobiles and views of the sumptuous homes and the picturesque bay contrasted with the polluted industrial wasteland.
Leonardo DiCaprio is used to playing rich and famous Americans such as Howard Hughes and J Edgar Hoover. He brings to the character of Jay Gatsby just the right mix of sartorial elegance, supreme social confidence, and ultimately, personal despair.
As Nick Carraway, Tobey Maguire does well in his role of storyteller, recounting and acting out his experiences of being drawn into a world where things quickly spiral out of control. The versatile English actress Carey Mulligan is effective as the mixed up Daisy and Noel Edgerton represents the jealous husband with a combination of arrogance, menace and contempt.
This latest version of The Great Gatsby certainly does justice to J Scott Fitzgerald’s seminal novel and portrays ‘The Age of Excess’ with appropriate excessiveness.