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Who Was The Wolf of Wall Street, Really? We're Still None The Wiser

23/01/2014 17:44 GMT | Updated 25/03/2014 09:59 GMT

'The Wolf of Wall Street' is, by many standards, a good film. Sure, it follows all of the predictable plot beats that any given "money and drugs in the Eighties" flick entails, but it makes up for its lack of narrative surprises with its strong central performances and highly stylised depictions of excess. Well, I say there are no surprises; when I saw it, there was one scene in the film's second half that had people in the audience gasping in shock. Warning: spoilers follow.

Immediately after one of the most awkward cinematic sex scenes in recent history, protagonist Jordan Belfort is stunned when his wife Naomi demands a divorce. Thing soon take a turn for the unpleasant, with the pair hurling profanities at each other. Ultimately, Naomi slaps Jordan, and he hits her back. Viewers around me in the cinema were audibly unsettled by this; even more so when, seconds later, Belfort floors his wife with a punch in the stomach. And I found myself wondering - why exactly were my fellow viewers so surprised?

It wasn't as if DiCaprio as an actor, or Scorsese as a director, had been portraying Belfort as a particularly sympathetic character up until this moment. We'd spent much of the two and a half hours prior watching Belfort cheat on his first wife, divorce her, and then proceed to cheat on his second wife (not to mention swindle his trusting clients out of millions of dollars). Respect for women is not so much a theme in this film, as much as it is a point of parody, perhaps best crystallised in Belfort's breakdown of prostitute pricing, or Jonah Hill's cringe-worthy speech about how he married his attractive cousin so that none of his friends could have her.

I could tell that for many cinema-goers, this scene of domestic violence, which culminated in Belfort crashing a car while trying to abscond with his young daughter, was the turning point. Belfort was no longer a charming, if morally dubious antihero. You can snort coke, and have sex with hookers, and call your butler a fag, but hitting a woman and snatching a toddler from her bed is where you stop being at all relatable and audiences completely disengage.

The trouble is, I had struggled to engage with Jordan Belfort's story to begin with. Yes, DiCaprio is as charismatic as ever, and he is surrounded by a highly capable cast. And some of the film's set-pieces are genuinely enjoyable, albeit in the worst possible taste (case in point; the drug-induced paralysis sequence). But throughout, I had this niggling feeling that I shouldn't be enjoying any of this.

The whole experience put me in mind of last year's adaptation of Irvine Welsh's novel 'Filth', which I unabashedly loved. The critical difference being, there was nothing stopping me from enjoying the transgressive exploits of Detective Sergeant Bruce Robertson in 'Filth'. He was completely fictitious. There wasn't the possibility of a real guy out there, slapping women around when it suited him.

Rupert Christiansen at The Telegraph recently argued against the case for considering 'The Wolf of Wall Street' as a work of art, citing "a disappointing flatness" and "the question of whether Scorsese ever wonders why Belfort does what he does, and is what he is." And it's true; Belfort remains something of a cipher to the very end.

It's possible to interpret from the film's open ending that we are encouraged to simply shake our heads and smile at this irascible grafter who always succeeds at turning a situation to his advantage, but I left the cinema wanting more. The closest Belfort comes to a moment of self-realisation is in a brief conversation with his wife's aunt (a lovely cameo from Joanna Lumley); "I'm a drug addict," he admits. "I'm a sex addict." And sure enough, as part of his 'fall from grace' journey, the character goes through rehab for drug addiction. But his complicated relationships with sex and with women are barely touched on again, until the troubling scene with which I began this review.

"You're missing the point," you might say. "It isn't a morality tale, and anyway, the film shows Belfort getting his comeuppance." Yes, he gets his comeuppance, in the form of three years playing tennis in a white collar prison. But any punishment shown on screen is a result of his professional misadventures. Belfort isn't prosecuted for domestic abuse, or for attempted kidnapping. We can infer that Naomi divorced Belfort and took custody of their children, but it is never shown. Maybe it would have made an already overstuffed film even longer. Maybe Scorsese credits audiences with the intelligence to work it out for themselves. But personally, I could have done with ten minutes less orgy footage if it meant getting a little more insight into who 'The Wolf of Wall Street' really was.