Wednesday, 22 May 2013

The Great Gatsby: Baz Luhrmann's crazy fairy tale

I went with the lowest of expectations to see The Great Gatsby, Baz Luhrmann's film version of F Scott Fitzgerald's book. I'd read a number of so-so reviews, and had been given personal recommendations ranging from the indifferent to the positively dismissive.

We saw it at the Dalston Rio, a cinema swathed like a theatre, where Gatsby cocktails (well, cocktails labelled with character names) were on sale. I went in, armed with a "Gatsby" - a gin and tonic (large) - prepared for the worst.

And in a sense my feelings, and those of the world, were confirmed. What this is, is  Fitzgerald if Walt Disney had taken the helm. Leonardo di Caprio is a fairy prince offering vast wealth and pleasure; Daisy is the princess trapped by an evil wizard or king, who  trips out at night to the other realm, wearing out her dancing shoes.  When you first see di Caprio, and he all but fizzes with magic dust, my yelps of laughter could be heard throughout the cinema. How long would it be, I wondered, before they all broke out into song? The princess will never be tempted by the empty promise of magic; she will retreat into the apparent safety of her prison. And so she does.

It was strange, too, to make Nick (a jug-eared Tobey Maguire) into such a cypher. In the novel there are at least hints of his character; here he was simply, totally, in love with Gatsby, a vehicle to transmit the truth behind the glamour. And Jordan Baker, such a brittle, malevolent presence in the book, here just loomed about looking like she was permanently embalmed. But then, with the personality of Gatsby exploded from a few lines (all that is needed in the book) into the fleshy-faced persona of Leonardo di Caprio, there wasn't much room for anything else.

There were some lovely touches: those parties! Nick being left on his porch in nothing but his underwear; also when Gatsby fills Nick's house with flowers, awaiting Daisy. "Do you think it's too much?" he asks Nick. "I think it's what you want," is the answer. Gatsby agrees. Of course it is.

The problem is that Luhrmann has made a fairy story out of a fable. He's taken a morality tale rooted in realism and transported it to the realm of fantasy; by trying to inject it with some historical resonance (the Wall Street crash, etc.) he in fact simply makes it more unreal. All that tinsel and glitter fades the moment you've seen it: like fool's gold, or a fairy's spell at dawn; behind the glamour, there is nothing but an empty promise.


  1. Great review Philip. Reading the book may help you appreciate this movie a bit more, but being a person who actually read it; I don’t know how much it actually will.

  2. I think it's fairly clear from my review: "In the novel..." ... "in the book..." that I've read the book, which I have, three times in the last ten years.

  3. So is it a novel or a book? Your story is full of holes