|Cover of Baz Luhrmann|
|Cover of The Great Gatsby|
The first few minutes of Baz Luhrmann’s version of The Great Gatsby is such a shock that one is momentarily disoriented. It is like nothing I have ever seen before. It consists of a totally unrealistic, symbolic sort of film-making in which not even a word of dialogue seems to be realistic, seems to have taken off into some kind of surreal universe, while the visual effects are extravagant, and largely unexplained.
As one accustoms oneself to this raucous depiction of a society out of control in its search for pleasure, one begins to enjoy the inventiveness shown by the film-maker, almost to wallow in the jokes as one begins to wonder where the hell all this could be leading.
The essential piece of information about the characters that emerges from this first part of the film is that Gatsby, the almost mythical character who lies at the centre of this extravaganza of conspicuous, tasteless expenditure, has never been seen by any of the crowds of participants in the revels, and that only one person has actually been invited, formally, to these parties, and that is a character called Nick Carraway, played (one finds on later examination of the Internet, because no cast members were even mentioned in the screening I attended in Dubrovnik last night) by Toby Maguire, who has just moved in to live next door to Gatsby’s huge palace.
Eventually Gatsby does turn up and establishes a relationship of sorts with Carraway, who is a novelist in the process of describing his relationship with Gatsby to a psychiatrist as the film opens. Then, as the film settles down into more or less normal narrative form, we are introduced to Daisy, a beautiful, flighty young blonde who is married to a rather brutish man called Buchanan, who himself has a mistress among the working class, but who takes unkindly to the fact that Gatsby is beginning to pay concentrated attention to Mrs Buchanan.
At this point the style of the film changes, which is probably what has put off most of the critics who have not been impressed with this latest brilliant, fascinating and puzzling effort of the irrepressible Luhrmann. Gatsby reveals to Carraway, and finally to Buchanan, that he has loved Mrs. Buchanan for five years, long before she was married, and he says she has loved him, and demands of her that she announce to her husband that she has never loved him. Buchanan discovers that Gatsby’s money comes from nefarious activities, but Gatsby announces that he has acquired everything jut for Daisy. These are also strange scenes, overlaid with some kind of a patina that is not exactly realism, though they deal in emotions that are obviously so intensely felt by the participants that they must inevitably lead to tragedy.
I bow to no one in my admiration for Baz Luhrmann’s movies. I look forward to each of them with keen anticipation, and have never been disappointed. Beginning with the delicious comedy Strictly Ballroom, through the equally wonderful Moulin Rouge, with its strange, compelling mixture of ancient and modern, through the somewhat schlocky love story of Australia, redeemed as it was by the sensitive, indeed really beautiful handling of the Aborigine issue, and so on to this odd film, I have never found anything ordinary about any of them. In particular, perhaps because of my interest in indigenous people, I was enthralled by the Aborigine segments of Australia whose exceptional narrator was a young part-Aborigine boy of 11 whom Luhrmann found after a long search living in Broome, a town of 12,000 in the far north of the state of Western Australia. In the film this boy’s mother was killed early, and his care fell to the stuffy English woman played by Nicole Kidman. But his grandfather, a gnarled old man, never disappeared from his life and was to be seen in almost every sequence featuring the boy, standing on one leg on the edge of the shot in the middle distance, as he taught the boy the secrets of Aborigine lore. The child’s narration of the film was as clear as a bell, and the device of the Aborigine secrets he had learned was used in a riveting sequence in which the child faced a stampede of cattle as he stood alone on the edge of a steep cliff willing the animals with his secret hand movements to do his bidding, and bringing them to a halt within inches of the cliff.
These, and many sequences from the two earlier pictures I mentioned above, have stuck in my mind as typical of Luhrmann’s wonderful skills as a film-maker, and frankly there are similar sequences from this latest film which seem likely to stay in mind as well. The early sequences, which seem to stand as Luhrmann’s criticism of the hedonism, waste and extravagance of modern American society, are among those, but so are certain explosive sequences in which Gatsby drives his 1922–era car through the streets of a degenerated industrial landscape.
Leonard DiCaprio, who began his career as a rather callow young actor of Romeo in a filmed version of Shakespeare’s play, has advanced his acting skills as he has grown and matured, and he is good in this movie, no doubt about it, better than anything I have seen from him before. Carey Mulligan has the appropriate beauty, and flimsy vulnerability for Daisy, and Joel Eggerton is certainly more than adequate as the brutish Buchanan.
I liked Luhrmann’s inventive way of showing on the screen passages from the book that Carraway was writing about his experiences with Gatsby, reminiscent of the many tricks he used to keep the action moving in Moulin Rouge.