Another umbrella in the Gatsby/Luhrmann cocktail

Baz Luhrmann’s 2013 Gatsby is a car crash.

And maybe that’s exactly what it should be.

I watched in 2D.

You need to see the first half in 3D. Hey ho.

The second half, it doesn’t matter.

Original Gatsby jacket 1925

First edition jacket 1925

Because the second half is pinned to the narrative rather than the spectacle, and pinned so hard that it’s Fitzgerald’s story and plotting that keep you watching. It’s too long, but by this point Luhrmann’s in there and committed. The audience doesn’t have a choice but to go relentlessly with him.

At this stage the cartoon Luhrmann creates in the first half has been eroded by all that acid champagne and we’re left with something more fundamental and almost medieval in its representation of greed, power, envy and vanity.

The turning point – when the film moves from the purely visual to the emotional – is the scene in which Gatsby gets Nick to arrange tea with Daisy so he can ‘drop by’. DiCaprio owns this. He is awkward, over-confident, desperate, hopeful, idiotic and powerful just about simultaneously. Mesmerising. Convincing. You swallow a lot after that.

The other scene that walks out of the cinema with you is at the Plaza, New York, in the heat-wave. Daisy, brute husband Tom, Jordan Baker, the inevitable Nick and Gatsby are holed up together. Gatsby wants Daisy to tell Tom she loves him – Gatsby. Which is ok. But he also insists she tells Tom she never loved him. And this Daisy can’t do. She did love Tom. She married Tom when Gatsby wasn’t around and didn’t look like he was coming back. This feels like such a timelessly truthful moment. Two things, both separate, both true. It’s cataclysmic.

And from then on, it’s downhill into the car crash; the carefully set up car swap; the inexorable roll of tragic dice towards Gatsby, undone by his American dream as Daisy unknowingly drives his car into her own husband’s lover. Sorry. Plot doesn’t get much better than that.

There’s more, though, to this second half.

There’s a film-maker with a signature style that’s gone off the boil. That’s less fresh, less relevant. And there’s an audience that either wants a repeat of previous experiences, or wants to vilify him for not being surprising with the same tricks.

I’d like to suggest that here’s a film-maker who knows he’s on a hiding to nothing. Someone who’s saying look, I don’t know what to do with these ‘sacred’ words. I’m going to throw them around, have Carraway speak them while we’re enacting the very same scene, I’m going to show and tell, I’m going to give Carraway a story too; and whenever something sacred pops up – the flapping curtains, for example, when we first meet Daisy and Jordan – I’m going to make them preposterous to show just how hard it is to deal with sacred cows, while also showing exactly what it is that should be done with them.

Mark Kermode has said this film is ‘a fragment’ of Gatsby, and that that’s ok, in the same way that there will always be diverse interpretations of Shakespeare and others.

I’d go further and say Luhrmann’s film is about this exact subject – the beautiful and damned problem of interpreting great stories.

It’s messy to mess with myths. But still we need to mess with them.

And we’ll go on doing it, chasing their truths, fixating like Gatsby on the green light across the water, borne back – like all humanity – ceaselessly into the past.

 More on messiness