“Do you think it’s too much?”
“I think it’s what you want.”
I’ll be honest – I had such high expectations for this movie I kind of had to be numb to them. Baz Luhrmann has been one of my favourite directors for a long time now and I didn’t even want the fear of a letdown. Though none of them struck me as anything special the first time round (some of them, actually, irritated the heck out of me), I’ve come to view every one of his 4 previous features as a pretty unbroken chain of perfection.
Some people found the idea of him doing The Great Gatsby – in 3D, no less – was a bizarre move. I immediately thought it sounded perfect. Luhrmann has always – even when working in a low budget with his first, Strictly Ballroom – revelled in excess. “But Gatsby isn’t about excess! It’s about the folly of excess!” I’ve heard some cry. Yes. But you have to show the excess in order to criticise it, and Luhrmann does just that, as only Luhrmann can – did anyone think the garish design in Strictly made that world look desirable? If the image of Gatsby alone in his coffin with none of his party “friends” around at the bitter end doesn’t do it for you, I don’t know what to think.
At first I feared perhaps the whole thing was too Luhrmann, with particular reference to Moulin Rouge. Nick is a single writer who stumbles into this world of opulence, our representative, just like Christian in Moulin Rouge, the camera swooping through “oldefied” New York streets, and into Gatsby’s party mansion, extraordinarily similar to our introduction to the famed Paris club in 2001.
But as the movie settled into its own thing, I thought maybe this familiar entry point was sort of deliberate. I read “The Great Gatsby” as a teenager at school and its been sort of tainted for me ever since. At the time I struggled to understand it at all – I’m sure less to do with the book’s quality (it’s quite beloved, don’t you know…) than a teaching method that gave me no way in to the material. I passed whatever exams that quizzed me on it, I guess, but I was only ever regurgitating what I’d been told. I can honestly say that till I saw the last moments of this movie, though I could’ve told you what that last sentence of Fitzgerald’s novel meant, I honestly didn’t understand it in my own way. It could even be an age/experience thing – maybe at 33 I could read the book and get so much more out of it now than I did then. But I’m 33, slightly lazy in such things, and probably wouldn’t have even considered reading Gatsby again if not for Luhrmann’s movie.
I was surprised in the run up to the film’s release that most of the buzz pertained to the Jay-Z soundtrack and I’m even more surprised having seen the movie. The whole hip-hop idea doesn’t seem nearly as well developed and integrated as Luhrmann’s musical ideas, in particular, for Moulin Rouge and Romeo+Juliet. Most of the music in fact seemed to me to be Craig Armstrong’s characteristically lush and emotional piano and strings (I don’t like being hit over the head emotionally by many people but Armstrong, like Luhrmann, is one of the few.)
I try to avoid mentioning the 3D when I see these movies because I don’t believe it should matter and be more of a kind of garnish – the movie should still work (and I’m sure it does) without it, but it’s just a nice little extra. From first shot and title sequence to last, honestly the 3D here puts all others I’ve seen (and I’ve seen most of the big ones) to shame. I’d entirely forgotten about the whole “green light” thing in the book but the first shot of it here knocked the breath out of me… just the most perfect use of depth I have ever seen. Of course there’s the sheets, shirts, sparkly things, gimmicky 3D stuff as you’ve seen in the trailer, but there’s plenty of beautifully subtle stuff too.
I saw some criticism of Carey Mulligan’s portrayal of Daisy who (at least in the opinion of whoever wrote it) was (apparently, I can’t remember) much colder in the novel. As with much of the comments (many before actually seeing the movie) about the use of 3D, I feel this misses Luhrmann’s intent. She’s clearly still cold in her actions at the end of the movie – what we’re seeing in Mulligan is perhaps what Gatsby sees in Daisy, and what Nick sees in Gatsby… what does drive a person so lost to hold such hope?
As I said, I’ve never warmed fully to Luhrmann’s movies on a first viewing. But clearly this one (perhaps because it’s the first I’ve watched on the big screen?) is an exception, so I look forward to seeing how it holds up to further viewings (probably without the 3D – though the upcoming 3D Doctor Who special certainly has me tempted to save up for a 3D set). Clearly I’m not coming to it as a great worshipper of the novel (I certainly intend to give it another go after this though) – but what I loved most about it is that, however he went about it, Luhrmann gave me a way in to understanding Fitzgerald’s work on my own terms – I either never was told about the “extraordinary gift for hope” in Gatsby when I was at school or I had just not suffered enough disappointment at the time to see it for myself – or maybe Luhrmann was the only person who could show me. I know some people don’t need that kind of accessibility, but a lot of people do – and what he’s done with Fitzgerald for me here is as miraculous as how modern he made Shakespeare’s words sound back in 1996.