144 mins, 12A

Jonathan Romney on Luhrmann's The Great Gatsby: Leonardo DiCaprio gets lost in Baz's jazz

3.00

It's all over the place – but there is much to savour in this irresistible adaptation

Like it or not, there couldn't be a more appropriate opening attraction for the Cannes Film Festival than Baz Luhrmann's 3D The Great Gatsby. The extravagant Jazz Age festivities that Luhrmann organises embody exactly the glamorous image that Cannes likes to project, while, conversely, the movie's sparkling soirées owe less to actual 1920s America than to a platonic fantasy of an eternal, orgiastic Cannes gala – palm trees, red carpets and all.

Never mind that Gatsby doesn't work by any conventional standards as an adaptation of F Scott Fitzgerald's novel. It achieves what it's after, establishing a benchmark for what cinema can be as lavish spectacle in 2013. Here's an opulent special-effects movie that, for once, is about a different kind of superhero. You won't be bored, and you won't be unimpressed – even if you find Luhrmann's hysterical exuberance fairly indigestible.

His Gatsby is not the slim Penguin paperback you know, but the leather-bound, gold-embossed interactive edition with built-in boom box. It's so hyperbolically madcap that you want to take Luhrmann aside and say, "Now calm down, old sport …" Take the moment when Jay Gatsby first appears, at one of his parties. In the novel he self-effacingly turns up in the crowd; here, Leonardo DiCaprio toasts the camera with raised champagne glass, as Rhapsody in Blue hits its climax and fireworks blossom behind him.

Controversially, Luhrmann depicts the 1920s as the age When Bling Was King, using hip-hop style to draw comparisons between two periods of artistic creativity and of social and financial excess. Hence a soundtrack overseen by Jay-Z, featuring thunderous R&B rhythms over period newsreels, rappers in cars laden with crates of Moët (should have been Cristal, surely), snatches of Beyoncé and Florence Welch … And it sort of works – that is, it's distracting only up to a point, but never fully makes its impact. Rather than go all out with anachronism, as in his Moulin Rouge, Luhrmann patches little funky surprises into what's otherwise a surprisingly faithful adaptation, unambiguously set in the 1920s.

The style, though, is pure Luhrmann. Simon Duggan's camera bombs over the waters of Long Island or plunges off skyscrapers, like King Kong taking his final dive. In the novel, a drunken get-together in a Manhattan apartment is a crisply acrid comedy of manners; here it involves pillow fights, slapped buttocks and screaming red decor.

When they come on all visionary, Luhrmann and his partner, producer and designer Catherine Martin, lay it on with a gold-plated trowel. Gatsby's mansion is a Ludwig of Bavaria castle with the Gardens of Babylon attached. By contrast, the "valley of ashes" between Manhattan and Long Island becomes a benighted backwater of hell, its denizens ragged Orcs with soot-smeared faces.

The actors, understandably, can get a little lost, but Carey Mulligan's Daisy is a reassuringly candid presence – weary, wan, with a dash of Blanche Dubois. Also impressive, and perfectly period, is Elizabeth Debicki's golf gal Jordan – wide-eyed and angular, as if a gazelle had been crossed with an Afghan hound and hadn't recovered from the shock.

Bollywood legend Amitabh Bachchan is the shady Wolfsheim, here a Pharaoh-like corsair. Least impressive is Tobey Maguire's narrator Nick Carraway, disappointingly painted as a straw-hatted goof.

Best of all, though, is Joel Edgerton, whose racist boor Tom Buchanan transcends the monstrousness to achieve genuine vulnerability in the one scene (his confrontation with Gatsby) that achieves dramatic resonance. But the usually compelling DiCaprio never comes into focus as Gatsby – one minute the suave châtelain, the next manically yelling his biography, then suddenly a confused dork in a too-farcical tea-party reunion with Daisy.

The stylistic lurches make for a messy, incoherent film, but think of Luhrmann as approaching the novel the way that some crazed avant-garde opera director would treat the Ring Cycle – a bit of post-modernist outrage here, back to trad Wagner there, and the devil take the hindmost.

The result might be a travesty of Fitzgerald's ironic grace, but as a celebration of what CGI-age cinema can be at its showiest and most fanciful, I'll take it over your usual blockbusters. Think of it as The Fast and the Furious: The Jazz Generation.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment

game of thrones reviewWarning: spoilers

Arts and Entertainment
The original Star Wars trio of Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill

George Osborne confirms Star Wars 8 will film at Pinewood Studios in time for 4 May

film

Arts and Entertainment
Haunted looks: Matthew Macfadyen and Timothy Spall star in ‘The Enfield Haunting’

North London meets The Exorcist in eerie suburban drama

TV

Arts and Entertainment

Filming to begin on two new series due to be aired on Dave from next year

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Kit Harington plays MI5 agent Will Holloway in Spooks: The Greater Good

'You can't count on anyone making it out alive'film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living
    Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

    Homeless people keep mobile phones

    A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before