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THE GREAT GATSBY

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Mira Sorvino, Toby Stephens, Paul Rudd, Martin Donovan
Director:  Robert Markowitz
Audio:  Dolby Stereo
Video:  Standard 1.33:1
Studio:  A&E
Features:  Talent Files, F. Scott Fitzgerald episode of “Biography”
Length:  100 Minutes
Release Date:  January 30, 2001

Film ***

Often called the greatest of all American novels, I have to say that A&E's recent television broadcast (and subsequent video release) of The Great Gatsby is one of the better filmed versions I've seen.  I actually prefer it to the somewhat sterile 70's Hollywood production starring Robert Redford in the title role.  This new version comes closer to the original novel, and closer to the characters than its predecessor…in some ways, it actually comes across as more literary and less cinematic, but here, that works out as a compliment.

Normally, I don't care for films with too much voiceover narration, but in the case of this book, how else do you get F. Scott Fitzgerald's immortal style to come across on screen?  The narration by Nick Callaway (Rudd) is taken directly from the book in most cases, and the words of Fitzgerald do more to set the moods and character relationships than any hundred yards of film could really do.

The story is about life in the roaring twenties.  As in all eras, there are the haves and the have-nots, and this decade defined the former by their lavish lifestyles, their boozing parties, and always being in the public eye…a way of life that Fitzgerald correctly captured as being rather empty and shallow, inhibited largely by people with little or no soul.  Everyone lived for the moment, and no one really cared that life was meaningless, as long as it was pleasurable.

Nick is clearly not one of the in crowd.  Even his meager home is separated by a lake from where the upper crust hobnobs.  He can see into that world, but tries to stay apart from it, until the day he receives a strange invitation from a well-known rich socialite named Jay Gatsby (Stephens). 

Gatsby is a rich man with a mysterious past, who makes friends with Nick with one aim in mind, which he readily confesses to him:  Nick's cousin, Daisy (Sorvino) is Gatsby's long lost love.  They were a couple before the war, when she was a rich debutante and he was a poor soldier-to-be.  Their love was genuine, but in their world, poor boys don't marry rich girls.  Gatsby joined the army, and Daisy, despite her devotion, couldn't wait for him, also recognizing their lack of a future.  By the time Gatsby returned from the fighting, Daisy had married Tom Buchanan (Donovan), and started life anew.

How Gatsby came into his fortune after the war remains a matter of some question until the end…but his accumulation of wealth and his establishment of himself as a popular socialite had been achieved with one goal in mind:  to pick up where he left off with Daisy.  He loves her, but is sadly trapped by his devotion to his dream of how she once was, rather than the woman she's become.  When Nick finally unites the old lovers, it seems for a few moments that maybe there will be a happy ending.

But in Fitzgerald's world, dreams often shattered in the face of reality.  It begins when Gatsby confronts Daisy's husband Tom.  “She NEVER loved you,” he proclaims.  Daisy won't support him in saying that's true:  they had, after all, been married for years at that point, and with a daughter to boot.  Though she still loves Gatsby, that's not something that can be readily walked away from.

This all leads to a terrible, climactic tragedy, but not one that comes across like an interruption by fate, as is often the case with these stories.  Instead, it comes like a dark, sobering exclamation point at the end of a sentence already read.  It was not the tragedy that spelled the end of Gatsby and Daisy…their end had come when Gatsby had to realize that his dreams of her could not unfold the way he had hoped. 

The true spirit of the novel really comes across in this production, and while not a fancy or stylized film, it nevertheless is a movie that maintains a strong sense of integrity and fidelity to its subject matter.  It's not a picture brimming with emotion, but neither was the book…it manages to capture Fitzgerald's quiet spirit of loneliness, emptiness and melancholy in simple, expressive ways.  The cast is first rate in their understanding of this:  none tries to inject more business into their performance than was warranted.  The result sometimes comes across as though they were simply lost souls looking for some kind of semblance of light. 

The Great Gatsby stands as perhaps its decade's most defining work of art.  Like Matthew Brady's photographs were to the Civil War, or the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper album was to the flower-power movement, Fitzgerald's novel both captured a specific moment in time and culture in our country, and grew to reflect its values and record them for all posterity.  And this film is probably as close as one can get to capturing that quality of a novel that, in my opinion, will never translate perfectly into cinema.  It brings just enough of the book's spirit and the truthfulness of the characters to the screen to be an entirely worthwhile viewing experience.

Video **

The video quality is a bit hit and miss.  Lighter scenes look fantastic, with good clarity and definition, and beautiful coloring.  The darker the scenes or the images, the weaker the rendering.  Sometimes even chaps wearing dark suits become just a mass of color, with no defining lines or sharpness.  Low light scenes make for even murkier definition.  To be fair, there is no grain, and no chroma noise or other artifacts attributed to compression, and coloring is very strong and natural looking throughout.  All in all a decent, if not outstanding, picture.

Audio **

The stereo soundtrack is perfectly fine, if not spectacular.  Dialogue clarity is solid throughout, and the touches of music give the audio a small amount of dynamic range.

Features ***

In addition to talent files for the lead actors, the main feature is a good one:  the inclusion of the F. Scott Fitzgerald episode of A&E Network's “Biography”.  Filled with rare photos and lots of good information, it gives a terrific chronicle of the rise and fall of one of America's greatest writers.

Summary:

The Great Gatsby is an under-stylized but effective cinematic retelling of a great American novel.  With a good cast and a selfless sense of direction that supports Fitzgerald's original work rather than gloss over it for the sake of flexing artistic muscle, fans of the novel ought to be pleased overall with this presentation…and the special “Biography” episode included here guarantees this disc as a must-see.