Thursday 30 May 2013

Gatsby: Wishing on a star...

“Just think of all the moments that we'd spent
I just can't let you go, for me you were meant
And I didn't mean to hurt you, but I know
That in the game of love you reap what you sow”
Wishing on a star, by Rose Royce

In a recent interview, Richard Armitage has mentioned that he believes his fans to be very well-educated people who are always reading some interesting book. (Thank you for the kind words, Mr. A!) Well, I could say the same about him, because he’s obviously intelligent and also seems to be going through life with a book at hand. I’ve taken his advice on books on more than one occasion. For example: the book that is responsible for the name of this blog was a suggestion from Mr. Armitage himself. Yes, Richard, that was all you, see how you’ve inspired me!
Richard Armitage + Books = perfection!
RA as Harry 'the handsome stranger' Kennedy in The Vicar of Dibley (2006)
Sometimes, we even seem to have the same idea at the same time. On 1 May, Richard was interviewed via telephone on Scotty and Nige's radio show in Canberra, Australia, during his promotional press tour for the DVD release of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (Thank you to for the audio file!) . One of the questions in that interview was: Which book are you reading at the moment? And on the exact day that I had gone to the bookstore to buy this exact book, Richard said: “I’m reading The Great Gatsby”. Coincidence? I think not. More something along the lines of great minds thinking alike, I’d like to believe ;-)

I wanted to read the book before seeing the new film, and I’m very happy to say that I’ve now had the pleasure of doing both.
F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel (at only 167 pages, I would actually rather call it a novella, don’t you think?), even though it’s set in the summer of 1922, is more current than ever. It takes us to the Roaring Twenties, a time of loosening sexual morals, the excesses of post-war life in the US and a time of immense social upheaval. The social divides of the previous decades had been shaken by the war and people were struggling to find a new place for themselves, a new balance for their world and a new sense of purpose for their lives.

The unprecedented economic prosperity (did Fitzgerald in fact predict the stock market crash of 1929?), the new music of the Jazz Age, and a renewed belief in the concept of The American Dream were bringing a new sense of freedom and vigour to life in a city as glamorous as New York. Any ‘Noboby from Nowhere’ could be dirt poor one day and filthy rich the next, but the difference between ‘old money’ and ‘new money’ was a cause for frustration and resentment. People were trying to hold on to the conventions of the past, while the world around them was changing at an unprecedented speed.

In the middle of all this, Nick -“My family is something of a clan”- Carraway, moves from the American Mid-West to New York, specifically to Long Island, where he rents a house for the summer in West Egg, next to the grand mansion of the mysterious Mr. Gatsby, overlooking the bay of East Egg, where the old established families reside.

“Reserving judgements is a matter of infinite hope.
I am still a little afraid of missing something, if I forget that, as my father snobbishly suggested, and I snobbishly repeat, a sense of the fundamental decencies is parcelled out unequally at birth.”

Gatsby’s reputation precedes him. Everybody who is anybody has been to one of his extravagant parties full of music, food and alcohol. And even though they did not receive a formal invitation and many of them have no idea who or what Mr. Gatsby is, they still flock to the incandescent display of wealth and decadence in his house like moths to a flame. Everyone, except Nick Carraway. Nick does receive an invitation: Gatsby deliberately singles him out because Nick holds the key to the fulfilment of his carefully constructed dream-like existence, his reason for breathing, working, planning: Nick’s cousin, Daisy Buchanan.

“Sometimes they came and went without having met Gatsby at all,
came for the party with a simplicity of heart that was its own ticket of admission.”

To avoid any spoilers, about the book or the film, I will try not to talk about the events that take place in the story. But it is beautifully written: intelligent and elegantly descriptive proze that never lingers on insignificant details. The story moves at the same steady pass as the roaring twenties that it describes. All I can say is, please read the book, it is, with every right, a great contender for the title of ‘Great American Novel’.

And then there was the film. Going to see the film, I honestly tried to expect as little as possible, hoping that I would not be disappointed.

This is a film by Australian director Baz Luhrman, and it has his typical signature all over it. If you’ve seen Moulin Rouge, you will be familiar with his luscious, decadent style. Luckily, Mr. Luhrman always manages to find those stories for which his particular style makes sense: the glamour and decay behind the scenes of the glorious shows of the Moulin Rouge and the deafening contrast between the roaring, lush parties in Gatsby’s mansion, the lustre and wealth of East Egg and the poverty of middle America and the desolation of an abandoned house, overcome by darkness, scandal and, most of all, regret are superbly displayed on the silver screen.
Another element that contributes to the contrasts displayed in this film is the use of 3D. The people sitting next to me in the cinema were disappointed: they were expecting things to come at them and ‘the people to step off of the screen’. To be honest, I was very happy that Luhrman did not make anything fly out at me using the 3D technology to create false layers. Instead, he used the technology wisely; creating a sense of depth in certain scenes and making others appear very flat, in line with the emotion that he was trying to convey. After a while, I no longer even realised that I was looking at a 3D film (in spite of those horrible 3D goggles!), and that’s exactly the kind of effect that a filmmaker should strive for. The decadence of the parties, the strength of Gatsby’s emotional despair and the confusion in Nick Carraway’s mind, in my opinion, seemed to benefit immensely from the extra depth offered by 3D.

And I never realised how much emotion a white curtain in 3D can contain until Luhrman used it to frame his introduction of the carelessly beautiful Daisy Buchanan with it. That scene made me gasp out loud, it’s extremely powerful.

Daisy Buchanan is extremely well portrayed by Carey Mulligan. She embodies Fitzgerald’s description of Daisy:

“Her face was sad and lovely with bright things in it,
bright eyes and a bright passionate mouth, but there was an excitement in her voice that men who had cared for her found difficult to forget: a singing compulsion, a whispered ‘Listen’, a promise that she had done gay, exciting things just awhile since and that there were gay, exciting things hovering in the next hour.”

She’s careless and frivolous and her very essence breathes upper-class and money. She’s a good girl, sticking to the conventions of her upbringing and what is deemed proper for a girl in her position. She’s out of touch with reality, endearingly selfish and careless with love.

Tobey Maguire plays Nick Carraway, and although Tobey does so perfectly well, he was the only more negative element in this film. To me, Tobey Maguire will always be Peter Parker, not just because he played Spiderman, but also because he always seems to have stepped right out of a cartoon, even when portraying a more soft and subtle character like Nick Carraway. Even though we see this story from Nick’s point of view, it sometimes almost made me think that Nick was insane or had imagined the whole thing. And that must have been due to Tobey Maguire’s style, as that element is completely missing in the novel. Sorry Tobey!

Joel Edgerton, on the other hand, is superb as Daisy’s husband Tom Buchanan. He gives Tom a huge upper-class ego, careless disdain for the world around him, and the biggest double standards I have ever seen. He strongly reminded me of Billy Zane’s portrayal of Rose Dewitt’s finance Cal Hockley in Titanic. Tom seems to possess a little voice in the back of his mind that constantly reminds him to keep up the appearance of being untouchable. As long as everything happens behind the scenes and what people see remains good and proper, there’s nothing wrong with it. His entire character is based on perception and long-forgotten achievements on the polo field. Well done Joel!

“They were careless people, Tom and Daisy—they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.”

But the biggest surprise of this film, to me, was Leonardo Dicaprio. Yes, obviously I did know he was in this film, I just never expected to be moved by his Gatsby. Leo has always been one of those actors who simply seem to play every role as a slightly adjusted version of themselves: Leo, to me, was always Leo. But not here: he was Gatsby; not only did he stick so very well to Fitzgerald’s novel, down to the very detail of his character’s facial expressions, but I could actually see it in his eyes. His demeanor would change completely from one scene to the next, depending on whether he was playing the accomplished businessman or the lovesick soldier. The despair, the gentle hope, the deep disappointments of life, it was all right there.

“They’re a rotten crowd’, I shouted across the lawn.
 ‘You’re worth the whole damn bunch put together.”
In one particular scene, he managed to move me to tears, and I was so surprised by my own emotional reaction, especially because I knew exactly what was coming from the book. It’s the scene in the book where Nick comes home and Gatsby is waiting for him. Nick has been out with Jordan Baker who has asked him, on Gatsby’s behalf, if he would be so kind as to invite his cousin Daisy to tea. I almost skimmed over those two pages in the book, the scene almost seemed silly, but seeing Leo put so much more into this short, insignificant conversation between the two men, made me realise its emotional charge and made my heart leap in tender compassion for Gatsby. It’s hard to describe, but Gatsby stole my heart in that exact moment. That was a little tour de force, Mr. DiCaprio!

OK, I think I’ve rambled on long enough now, I'm sure you get the general idea of why I liked the film. Please go and see it if you have the chance, and read the book first if you can. Just like me, you will not be disappointed!

The Great Gatsby
by F. Scott Fitzgerald
First published in 1926

The Great Gatsby (2013)
a film written and directed by Baz Luhrman
starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Tobey Maguire, Carey Mulligan and Joel Edgerton

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