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Why the Critics are Wrong About Luhrmann's 'The Great Gatsby'

17/05/2013 17:04 BST | Updated 15/07/2013 10:12 BST
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Before I saw Baz Luhrmann's The Great Gatsby, I wrote it off. It was ushered in with a vapid fashionista fanfare ('Carey Mulligan on Daisy Buchanan's diamonds!' 'Jazz up your wardrobe with Gatsby-inspired accessories!') and looked destined to be the film Daisy-dazzled supermodels wanted it to be; a paean to consumerism and beauty, adorned with feather-adorned headbands and shiny Bernie bobs, centred around a 'tragic love story'. In other words, a garish triumph of style over substance and a fatal misreading of Fitzgerald's novel.

Though most critics so far have concluded that Luhrmann has made exactly that, I think they're wrong. In fact, I think they're the ones guilty of a lazy misreading. Yes, The Great Gatsby is stunning, but it's meaningfully, provocatively stunning, and the momentary blindness it causes is fundamental to its presentation of the rip-roaring twenties.

This isn't just awesome spectacle for spectacle's sake. Luhrmann uses sensory overload in a similar way to Harmony Korine in Springbreakers - to disorientate the audience and send them reeling into a hallucinogenic whirl. The party scenes move rapidly from one chaotic, colour-rich, too-busy mise-en-scene to another; as soon as you find a stable image to focus on (is that an inflatable zebra floating in the fountain?) the camera swoops off again, leaving you giddy. A cacophony of hollering, laughing, singing party-goers festooned with blazing jewels, pastel suits and luminous dresses are soundtracked by brash, menacing, unerringly modern and bone-vibratingly loud hip-hop. Watching it, being assaulted by it, you're overpowered and seduced at the same time, and that's the point. These are the people who danced and drank their way to the 1929 crash. Luhrmann wants you to feel, not just understand, how this wanton and careless society could make such whopping mistakes. It felt good at the time.

The other purpose of this gaudy, bawdy discombobulation is to remind us that Fitzgerald's Gatsby is not a record of the Fall of the American Dream or any other simple thing; it is far slippier and dreamier than that. There is no secure place where the reader can position himself and take it all in. One will always, to paraphrase Nick Carraway, fail to grasp the whole.

The scene where Gatsby is finally revealed was a talking point at the press screening I went to. It is ridiculously OTT. After a protracted build-up, with party guests frenetically swapping myths about Gatsby's past, Gershwin's gushing Rhapsody in Blue comes to its towering crescendo and everything freezes for a second - and then there it suddenly is; Leonardo Di Caprio's famous face, centre screen, in screaming close-up, a backdrop of fireworks whizzing behind him. It's all spectacularly hyperbolic and, I think, deliberately funny. But it makes another crucial point.

Luhrmann is playing with the star status of Di Caprio, and the endless speculation about what he'll look like as Gatsby. But more importantly, the director is addressing not one but two hulking great legends in his film; that of Jay Gatsby, and that of the novel itself. That's why the screen is regularly filled with the printed word. There's no pretence that this is a straight-forward adaptation - the words are too great, too famous. So when you repeat the best ones, you literally hand them back to the writer.

The other thing Luhrmann does well is deal with the spectre of inevitability - of the pending financial meltdown, of the sad ending of Gatsby's delusional fantasy and, more originally, of the passing of time and the move into adulthood which corrupts us all.

We all know the novel is leading up to the crash, and the exposure of the emptiness of the American dream. Luhrmann suggests that equally as significant is the idea that the worst enemy is time and even the Buchanans' old money can't beat that. The disappointment of adulthood gets us all in the end. It's got Daisy by the time we catch up with her, and made her a selfish and shallow person. What sets Gatsby apart is what Luhrmann portrays as his state of arrested development, still behaving like a child, often naive and silly - 'Look at my amazing house, see how many silk shirts I own, isn't my shiny car awesome!' - but also noble in his prolonged pursuit of happiness and his dream.

And Di Caprio absolutely gets Gatsby's contradictions. He's a hustler, an immature show-off, and when it comes to Daisy, pathetic and naïve. But occasionally, when he holds Daisy's face in his hands, he looks like king of the world, the guy who got his girl and doesn't see the end coming. Always acknowledging the novel as the constant spectre over the film, Luhrmann also exploits the fact that his audience all know how this is going to wind up, and he uses that unwelcome fore-knowledge to add pathos to every romantic hope Gatsby whispers in Daisy's ear.

It's not perfect, obviously, and why Luhrmann changed the ending to cancel out Fitzgerald's brilliant line about Gatsby looking up and seeing "what a grotesque thing a rose is" I have no idea. But there's something wonderfully idealistic and faithful - in the sense of being full of faith -about this film that I think F. Scott Fitzgerald would like. And that, old sport, is certainly something.