Sometimes, when I go and visit the BBC, the security people ask me if I’m there “for the audition.” One day I’m going to say yes and see what happens – mainly because I hope to get a string of non-speaking roles in period dramas that will eventually lead to me appearing in a dress made of sequins, glass and gold, dancing on a table in a Baz Luhrmann film. By then the year will be 2057, I’ll be at least 100 years old and I’ll still look better than I ever have before. This is because Baz Luhrmann makes everyone and everything stunningly beautiful.
The Great Gatsby has been pretty much written off as ‘style over substance’ by pretty much everyone who has written off every other Baz Luhrmann film as ‘style over substance’ over the years. However, in this case, it’s true: the film, adapted from F Scott Fitzgerald’s 1920s novel, is at times so slow it manages to make having an affair seem like one of the most mind numbingly boring things you could possibly do.
When Leonardo DiCaprio’s Gatsby isn’t drawling his catchphrase “old sport” like a record stuck in a gramophone, he is professing his love for Carey Mulligan’s Daisy Buchanan in the most lacklustre and dispassionate way imaginable. She feels not so much torn between him and her husband as stuck in a lift with them both, rolling her eyes at the banality of it all. Tobey Maguire, as Nick Carraway – one of the novel’s central characters – hovers on the sidelines like a spare part, the ‘troubled writer’ Luhrmann loves, poised to do a voiceover whenever it is least needed.
Everyone is rich, everyone is glamourous (apart a few grizzled figures who aren’t and pop up sporadically in a post-apocalyptic wasteland) but also tired out by fun and frivolity – and so they tire you out too. Maybe this is the point: Fitzgerald’s novel is famed as a critique of American excess, but when you go and see a film by Luhrmann you expect bombastic visual exuberance paired with a thrilling story of love and passion, not a bunch of nonchalant rich people hanging about, having a chat.
The best scenes are Gatsby’s notorious parties. Some have criticised the use of R&B and hip-hop, rather than the jazz music so intrinsic to the novel’s setting, but since when has Luhrmann been about historical accuracy? What he offers is his world, his vision, his style of filmmaking. When he has a simple story – ones with all the lifts and falls of a classic romance – he’s able to infuse it with additional emotion through music, dance and visuals like no one else. Strictly Ballroom, Moulin Rogue! and Romeo + Juliet are all terrific because of this. The Great Gatsby, unfortunately, isn’t.