I went to see The Great Gatsby with some trepidation. I’ve read the book several times, always to fresh surprise; it seems endlessly enigmatic and brilliantly faceted. Was Baz Luhrmann the right director for this beloved classic? We knew he could direct a party sequence: and yes, the sequins shimmer, legs scissor, corks pop, pearls and swimming pools glimmer. But the novel shows up the hollowness, dreariness and pain at the heart of the era and foreshadows the long hangover to come. To fall in love with all the decadence is to miss the moral point.
It took me a while to get used to the 3D; the prettified opening scenes somehow combine flatness and depth like a Pollocks toy theatre. Also, I kept feeling travel sick. No one can mention ‘the light at the end of Daisy’s dock’ without Luhrmann swooping you over the waves at high speed to meet it. There is also the question of what we might call Gatsby’s gigantism. Not only does he live alone in an enormous castle, he’s having a millennium party every single weekend, just to get Daisy’s attention. The financial scale is ridiculous, merely drawing attention to the film’s artifice, rather than to Gatsby’s mystery. This lack of realism fudges the central question: what sort a person is Jay Gatsby? Even Russian oligarchs don’t carry on like that.
Gatsby is great not because of his money, but because of his capacity to love and hope eternally. Does a great love require a great object? As Daisy, Carey Mulligan looks lovely and delivers her iconic lines with aplomb: the awkward, bathetic ‘I certainly am awfully glad to see you again’ on her first sight of Gatsby for five years, and the bitter ‘that’s the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool.’ She’s cute, charming, delicious, but we can’t fathom Gatsby’s adoration because, well, you never can understand such a thing from the outside.
Nick Carraway is one of those unobtrusive narrators who make perfect sense on the page; his are the eyes we look through, his is the moral viewpoint. But in a film we just think, what’s with this dozy, sexless guy and why does he keep hanging around? Tom Buchanan gives him a sleazy raison d’etre I don’t remember from the novel: ‘I know you like to watch…’ Tobey Maguire plays him attractively with an air of depthless puzzlement, which is probably the best you can do.
The framing device of having Carraway write the novel as a memoir at the behest of his psychiatrist is less successful: too many shots of Maguire tapping at an old typewriter. And if the ludicrous excesses of the party scenes can be explained as his exaggerations, then why should we believe any of his story? Not everyone will like the hip hop soundtrack (though I found it unobtrusive enough).
But the main reason to see this version is Leonardo Di Caprio, not an obvious choice for Fitzgerald’s ‘elegant young roughneck’ with the extraordinary smile ‘that you may come across four or five times in life’. The strongest scenes turn out not to be the orgies of Twenties decadence but the painfully tense showdowns as Tom and Gatsby fight over Daisy’s very soul. I was captivated by Di Caprio, long before Gatsby finally takes to the pool in his adorable onesie. Gatsby is the freshest, frankest, most unspoiled character here, which, when you think of how he makes his money, is the book’s central irony (and maybe the reason it still resonates today). Di Caprio with his old-young-baby-man face is wrong in the right sort of way for this part, and makes it entirely his own.