All that glitters is gigabytes

Reviewed: The Great Gatsby.

The Great Gatsby (12A)
dir: Baz Luhrmann

When the Australian director Baz Luhrmann shot his first movie, Strictly Ballroom, there was a gulf between his budget (around $3m) and his ambition that had to be bridged by enthusiasm and sequins alone. This sort of gap can result in kitsch, and the film was certainly that, but it was also sincere; as an “ugly duckling” love story, it felt right that the movie itself was sprucing up its own raggedy feathers and exaggerating its bill.

Luhrmann left financial restraints behind long ago; if he can imagine it, he can get it made. As The Great Gatsby is also about a humble man muscling his way to a position where he need only conceive of, say, dancing girls turning cartwheels through cascades of champagne for it to become a reality, perhaps Luhrmann is the perfect candidate to make a razzle-dazzle film version. Admirers of F Scott Fitzgerald may feel differently.

Some have expressed scepticism about the contribution of the rapper Jay-Z to the movie’s soundtrack. In fact, the pulse of hiphop in The Great Gatsby, or a speakeasy scene featuring Amy Winehouse’s song “Back to Black”, is only following in the fine tradition of A Knight’s Tale, which used Queen’s “We Will Rock You” at a medieval jousting tournament.

One uncontroversial area of the film must be its cast. The performers are so shrill to begin with that there is a worry they have taken the acting style of Grease as their model. Half an hour in, everyone calms down. Tobey Maguire, with his gawping, froggy face, is an ideal Nick Carraway – the naif who arrives in 1920s New York and lives, literally and figuratively, in the shadow of the millionaire Jay Gatsby. Carey Mulligan is hauntingly good as Daisy Buchanan, Gatsby’s long-lost love, a light blancmange of a woman who turns out to have a centre you could break a tooth on. Leonardo DiCaprio captures the twitchy fragility beneath Gatsby’s manufactured swagger.

It’s certainly not DiCaprio’s fault that he makes a terrible entrance. Nick’s narration, which is gauche on the page but hyperbolic to the ear, sets up hoops, flaming hoops at that, for his co-stars to dive through. It hardly seems fair that the sight of Gatsby smiling after introducing himself has to compete not only with the background fanfare of fireworks and Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue”, but with the sound of Nick’s description of that smile: “It seemed to understand and believe in you just as you wanted to be understood and believed in.” To which the only sane response can be: no, it doesn’t. It just looks like a faintly smug smile.

In a novel, we accept a voice that tells us what we are seeing. In a film, we have eyes to receive that information and actors to transmit it. The use of Nick’s voiceover is only the mildest of the intensifiers to which Luhrmann resorts – intensifiers that have the paradoxical effect of destabilising what we are watching, in the same way that it makes our confidence wobble when someone adds the word “honestly” to the end of the sentence “I love you” or “I’ll pay you back.” The most misbegotten of the intensifiers in The Great Gatsby is surely the use of 3D. It’s staggering to think that the film industry is selling imperfect technology that has yet to equal the sophistication of the View-Master device popular with children of the 1970s; for all the whooshing, computerised zooms, the predominant visual impression is that we are watching a staging of Fitzgerald’s novel in a Victorian toy theatre.

Audiences will be accustomed to Luhrmann’s “throw everything at the wall and see what sticks” approach but it’s disconcerting that the “everything” in The Great Gatsby is comprised of pixels; all that glitters is gigabytes. The sets, including Gatsby’s Disneyland-meets-Sagrada Família home, were built by the brilliant designer Catherine Martin, although their splendour is often undermined by the optical fuzziness of computerised manipulation.

If the most recent Star Wars films taught us anything (apart from not to see any more Star Wars films) it is that actors inserted into locations where they have never actually stood will invariably look like cardboard standees. There should be an artificiality to the opulence on display but it probably shouldn’t feel as though Tom and Daisy Buchanan’s mansion is nestling in the grounds of Teletubbyland.

None of this would matter if Luhrmann were making a point about profligacy, but his film is too dependent for its energy on Gatsby’s ostentatious parties to achieve any satirical strikes. This is a clear case of a film’s subtext (money can’t buy you everything) being undermined by the message of its own style (yes it can). What makes The Great Gatsbya failure is Luhrmann’s fear of the delicate moment, the ungilded lily. His camera whizzes across Manhattan, hurtling down the sides of skyscrapers, until overkill seeps into every quiet corner. The bespectacled eyes of Dr T J Eckleburg survey New York from his billboard, but any sense of omniscient morality present in the book is absent. I just kept thinking: “Why isn’t he wearing 3D glasses?”

Carey Mulligan in Baz Luhrmann's The Great Gatsby.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 20 May 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Dream Ticket

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Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis