Saturday, 10 August 2013

The Great Gatsby

I have a cousin who, whenever she tells me about friends I haven't met, portrays them as glorious, creative, witty, fascinating creatures. Without fail, when I am eventually introduced to any of these fabulous beings, they turn out to be pale imitations of the bright visions she's created in my mind. Such a thing could never be said about Baz Luhrmann and his films. On the contrary, no pre-release publicity, no review, no description anyone tries to provide of his movies can ever quite match up to the gorgeous spectacles he presents. His films - while often vacuous (Moulin Rouge, Australia) - are always dazzling, and Gatsby is no exception. Visually at least it is not a disappointment.

Mind you, it is not F Scott Fitzgerald's book either. Which is not to say that it is entirely faithless to the original. In its own way it is faithful; it is just that it is faithful in the way that an opera of Gatsby would be faithful. That is, it takes the book and gives it back to you in great big broad brushstrokes, bellowing out the story in strident brash tones. It takes as its cue the tone Fitzgerald sounds when at his most romantic, the note struck, for example, in this line from the novel, intoned as a voiceover by Nick Carraway in an early scene from the film:

 "The city seen from the Queensboro Bridge is always the city seen for the first time, in its first wild promise of all the mystery and the beauty in the world."

It is that sense of wild promise and mystery and beauty that Luhrman is trying to capture with his sumptuous costumes, his sparkling dance sequences, his backdrops so vivid that it feels as if your senses have been heightened by hallucinogens.

 The literalism of having actual bits of the original text printed across the picture is a bit clumsy, of course - although it does at least draw attention back to the fact that the film is merely a secondary product, a cinematic version derived from an original text, something that is meant to be read, not watched. The introduced sub-plot involving Carraway being Fitzgerald and writing his way out of alcoholism is just plain silly. -  and yet it doesn't matter. The thing has verve and you're swept along with it. What is more, in the process things are revealed about the text that might not have been noticeable before.

At least that's how it was for me. The images of war and Gatsby in uniform suddenly made me recognise something that has probably been obvious to other readers for years, but none the less was a fresh insight I was grateful to Luhrman for. That insight was that Gatsby's story is not just an individual's love story. His yearning to wipe away five years and return to a time of pure love and beauty is also a metaphor for an entire civilisation's yearning to wipe away the First World War and return to a time before the carnage began.

The central wonder of the film is, I should add, Leonardo di Caprio, whose performance is really moving. He does more with slight adjustments of his face than David Wenham could do with an hour of sleeve rolling. He is enchanting in the role and I hope he gets an Oscar. Opposite him, Joel Edgerton as Tom Buchanan gives the best performance I've ever seen from him. Carey Mulligan is okay as Daisy, but her looks are not quite delicate enough for the part, which in any case is an oddly insubstantial one - Daisy is not a clearly developed character in the book. Isla Fisher and Jason Clarke fill out the flimsy characters of Myrtle and her husband terrifically. Nick Carraway is a device more than a character and Tobey Macquire is perfectly workmanlike in the task.

The whole film is extremely enjoyable, provided you take it on its own terms. Clearly, if The Great Gatsby is your favourite book you will hate the movie - but then one always hates any movie made from one's favourite book. If you are not that passionate about the novel, however, you will recognise this as a visually generous homage to Fitzgerald and the spirit of his original work.

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