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Monday, 20 May 2013


The Great Gatsby is a central myth in the American story, like the Iliad was to the ancient Greeks, or the story of Cuchulainn to the Irish of pre-history.

It brings together those classic American ideas of reinvention of the self, and the American dream. Gatsby is the epitome of this, the poor boy made good, driven on by a dream and a pure desire to better himself.

In the end though, the story of Gatsby is a tragedy, almost Shakespearian. Gatsby is the tragic hero, with a fatal flaw. His flaw is that he is unable to accept that you cannot repeat the past. Gatsby is an absolutist, something that has driven him on to succeed, but which also gets in the way of his happiness.

In this film Gatsby is played by Leo di Caprio, who also worked with Baz Luhrmann, the director, on Romeo and Juliet, more than a decade ago now. The story is narrated by Nick Carraway, played by Tobey Maguire, who meets the immensely rich Jay Gatsby while in the Hamptons during the summer of 1922.

Gatsby is a mysterious figure but his story slowly comes out. Five years previously he left his lover, Daisy Buchanan, Nick's cousin, to go to fight in Europe in the World War. He realised that he wasn't rich enough to marry old-money Daisy, and so after the war set about trying to make enough money to be worthy of her.

Daisy, thinking him dead, marries Tom Buchanan, a brute and an adulterer, but someone even richer than her.

Gatsby succeeds in becoming fabulously rich, and builds an enormous mansion just across the bay from Daisy and her husband's equally grand Big House.

We see that everything that Gatsby does after the war is dedicated to making himself worthy of Daisy, and to winning her back. He throws these elaborate parties every weekend, just in the hope that she will show up to one. He befriends Nick because he knows that he is Daisy's cousin. He succeeds in seeing Daisy, though everything doesn't go according to plan.

The strength of the film for me was exemplified in the way Gatsby's parties were filmed. They look spectacular, Gatsby's orgiastic celebrations are a sensory attack, dancing, music, throngs and throngs of people, decadence, movement, vibrant colours, the whole thing is thrilling, gorgeous, luxurious. 

Then there is the music. Luhrmann uses contemporary sounds to soundtrack the movie, from Jay-Z, Lana del Rey, the XX, Jack White, Florence and the Machine. Emeli Sandé covers Beyoncé's Crazy in Love, while Beyoncé in turns does Amy Whitehouse's Back to Black.

And it fits, there is no disconnect between the nineteen-twenties setting and the twenty-first century music. The suspension of disbelief is easy, we are in an alternative, heightened universe anyway, the music coming from a different century is no problem to accept.

The settings also are striking. East and West Egg, where the characters live, are shown as some kind of paradise with rich, tropical vegetation and the sprawling residences of the super rich. The industrial zone between the Hamptons and New York City is like something from Lord of the Rings, Mordor-like, emphasising the massive gap between the idle rich and the miserable working poor.

And the shots with Gatsby driving his luminous yellow car through the city are futuristic, like the year 2222, not 1922. He weaves in and out of traffic like Blade Runner, or Luke Skywalker.

The visuals are sumptuous, delicious, magical. The impact almost overwhelms the story, and so, in the final act, when there is a lot of dialogue and less action, the movie slows down and begins to drag a little.

It is unavoidable, it looks so fantastic, and has so much energy and colour and vibrancy in the first half, that when the actual story has to be told the simple human interactions cannot match up to the gorgeousness of the previous hour. It is almost too much, too exquisite, and the look of the movie comes close to drowning out the actual narrative.

Yet it is a cinematic experience above all, a visual representation of F.Scott Fitzgerald's words, and is as brilliant and bright as Gatsby's dreams and ambitions. The film is dazzling, and much better than I was expecting.

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