If a film ultimately about emptiness leaves you 142 lavish minutes later feeling thoroughly depleted, does that mean it's a brilliant film? Discuss.
Baz Luhrmann's opulent version of The Great Gatsby is a faithful ode to the novel by F Scott Fitzgerald, generally held to be the finest American one of its kind, telling the tragedy of a self-made man, Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio). Gatsby is an enigmatic figure, with varying accounts as to how he made his fortune, but it's of small concern to the hordes who turn up at his Long Island mansion to drink his champagne and dance the night away.
Gatsby surrounds himself with impossibly expensive beautiful objects, and reaches out to reclaim the one thing he feels will make his life complete, his lost love Daisy (Carey Mulligan), now married to lascivious blue-blooded Tom Buchanan (chiselled Aussie Joel Edgerton), living on the other side of the bay, their house illuminated by the flashing green light of Gatsby's hope.
For a story all about the impossibility of changing the past, Luhrmann's version seems self-consciously aware of where it sits in relation to the story's own history, and that of its creators. For example, fans of the 1974 big screen version will be relieved to know that this Jay Gatsby even gets to fling his coloured shirts around at one point, in unashamed homage to Robert Redford's charismatic outing.
The dizzying opulence of Gatsby's parties, the swishing cars, the colourful costumes and flurry of cigarette-holders, all have the thumb-print of Luhrmann's previous hedonistic whirl, Moulin Rouge! stamped on them - which should give us pause as we remember how that recreational overdose concluded. Similarly, the beguiled wonder of Gatsby and Daisy's initial reunion has all the innocence of the Aussie director's Romeo + Juliet, and we know how THAT turned out.
And when we first see Gatsby holding court at one of his ridiculous, friendless gatherings attended by hundreds, he looks to all intents and purposes like a young Conrad Black reigning over one of his charity balls, those full-blown affairs that knew as few limits as their host and, once again, we have a nod to some future disaster.
For his leading man, Baz has recruited his original Romeo, DiCaprio, who gives Gatsby his customary all-consuming effort, and this casting is particularly apt. For DiCaprio, with his still cherubic face, serves as a bridge between that earlier film's innocence and romance and this futile attempt to grasp hold of it again. In the 17 years between, DiCaprio's also brought Howard Hughes to life in The Aviator, and there's much of that reclusive control freak in here, too. It's as though all these parts were inevitably shifting forward to this point in time - and it's the only film they could all have made together.
Is it possible to know too much about actors going in? Having read up on Tobey Maguire's own tireless drive for self-made success at the weekend, it was hard not to bring this knowledge to his narrator Nick Carraway's partisan lack of cynicism about Gatsby. It's a bias fortunately not shared by Luhrmann or Leonardo, who've made Gatsby as flawed as everyone else, if saved by his nobility, some wonderful bespoke suits and a cherubic smile.
We haven't had a big screen Gatsby since 1974, and I often wonder why these talented people bother with remakes when there are so many original stories to be told. But, for once, the relevance is plain to see. As well as telling the eternal story of a doomed love triangle, Luhrmann doesn't neglect the context of these thrill-seekers. He casts a knowing glance at Wall Street, with its ever-rising stocks - how COULD they fail? And our heroes speed their cars, bright yellow and blue like in cartoons, unseeingly through obstacles, once with devastating consequences, while labourers in far less comely colours continue to toil.
The Great Gatsby is as unsubtle as anything Luhrmann has ever done (which is saying something when you think of Australia - shudder), and an almost inevitable triumph of style over substance. But, for once his brutal brush may be the perfect tool to depict something profound about glitz shrouding emptiness, and our own constant need for self-examination - as F Scott Fitzgerald described, "boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past."
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