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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Time for put-upon Sicily to put out its wines

The high-altitude vineyards of Italy’s largest island produce nectar for the gods, Greek or Roman.

It was Diodorus of Sicily, a Greek historian in the 1st century BC, who wrote of the Gauls’ passionate attachment to wine that they “partake of this drink without moderation . . . and when drunk fall into a stupor or a state of madness”. There was, as yet, virtually no wine made in what would become France, and Italian merchants were making a fortune: in exchange for a jar of wine they received a slave, thus “exchanging the cupbearer for the cup”.

An irritated Gaul – and they were not people to irritate – might have responded that the Sicilians were no slouches on the drinking front, either. They had been making wine for several centuries by the time Diodorus was born, and although some of their grapes had been transplanted successfully to the mainland, a fair bit of what they produced was being consumed by the producers. And who, when drunk, does not approach either catatonia or insanity?

Perhaps the accusations rankle because the Gauls, with their lack of home-grown grapes, their thirst and consequent misbehaviour, were clearly the Brits of the Roman era. Plus ça change, as their descendants might say, although, given that France now has far healthier attitudes to wine than we do, perhaps there’s hope for us yet: just keep expanding the English vineyards, wait a couple of thousand years and – voilà!

Arguably the Sicilians have as many reasons to flee consciousness as we do. Their island may be breath-catchingly beautiful, from the Mediterranean beaches to the slopes of Mount Etna, past Greek temples, Roman ruins and Baroque churches, and their weather so wonderfully warm and dry that they can grow almost anything (a facility that led in the 20th century to a flood of boring wine that almost drowned the island’s vinous reputation for good). But Italy’s slender length is characterised by economic top-heaviness: the north is rich and industrialised, the south poor and rural, and Sicily is as far south as you can get.

The antique feel that tourists find so charming – Tinkers! Fishmongers! Absolutely nothing open between noon and 4pm! – is an indication of a region whose glories lie in the distant past, 2,500 years ago, when Syracuse was a powerful city state at least as large as Athens, praised by Cicero as “the greatest of the Greek cities, and the most beautiful of all”.

Such vicissitudes will make you flexible. Sicily has the adaptability of an island that has seen volcanic eruptions and armed invasions, has been powerful and poor, and been diddled out of its patrimony by cousins from the north as well as criminal-minded brothers from the village next door. Its range of indigenous grapes reflects this. There is spicy, rich Nero d’Avola; light, cherryish Frappato; and Nerello Mascalese, perhaps the most adaptable of all. The best whites are almondy Grillo and the tart, lemonish Carricante, grown on volcanic Etna’s high slopes.

As befits a place so frequently invaded, there are international grapes, too: one of the island’s finest wines, Tasca d’Almerita’s Contea di Sclafani Rosso del Conte, blends Nero d’Avola with Cabernets Sauvignon and Franc. Some top producers, such as Feudo Montoni, stick to indigenous grapes; the formidable Planeta tries practically everything.

The best winemakers have a wilful individuality that those befuddled Gauls would surely have recognised. In the case of COS, a fine triumvirate based in the south of the island, this mental agility has inspired Pithos, wine aged in the ancient clay jars called amphorae. Maybe this is the past catching up with Sicily – or, given the new trendiness of amphorae, just Sicily catching up. Does it matter? The wines are excellent, and entirely distinctive. Surely it is time for Sicily, or at least its finest products, to do a little invading of their own.

Next week: John Burnside on nature

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 19 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The age of terror