Review: In Defense of The Great Gatsby


I’m just not sure I buy that this is as much of an intractable disaster as most seem to think. It’s flawed in ways, surely, but estimable.

Without having read the book – though being familiar with the plot – I was, perhaps, in a less complex position when I sat down to watch than most. But it solidly held my interest, and thanks to the involving performances of DiCaprio, Edgerton and Mullligan, I felt invested too; perhaps not viscerally, but in a detached way.

Like most, I’d love to recast Tobey Maguiugh, edit it down and in a more languid fashion, and take out the post-production embellishments like the on-screen text which, just, I don’t know. Similarly, I’d unfuck the soundtrack; I clung to any brief glimpse of actual jazz or score like a life raft. It was my green light.

I feel as though the focus on the visual excess both before and after the film’s release indicates something of an unwillingness to look past it. It’s not so much that people were wishing it to fail, but I feel like the internet has slowly convinced itself that this is quintessentially poor filmmaking, where I just don’t see that. As though critical discourse has been crafted so that this kind of direction, design and style has become everything that everyone hates. Therefore it was doomed to fail, in a sense.

Again, I’m not trying to say that this is a case of “you wanted to hate it, so you hate it”. And very few hate it, most are simply disappointed. But I think if Luhrmann has committed one so-called ‘crime’, it’s this: being unfashionable. This kind of film simply isn’t en vogue, and therefore most see it as being a bit rubbish. It’s everything we’re told to not want in a film: lavishness, excess and bombast. If it’s not gritty or vague and elliptical or emotionally bare – all qualities I admire in a film – then it’s not very now, and as a result, The Great Gatsby suffers largely by being not of its time.

I think time will be kind, here. Time is generally a kind mistress. There is, to my mind, plenty to like here; Elizabeth Debicki is a glorious, sardonic, waifish wonder, and like most I cannot wait to see her in a leading role that befits her obvious talent. DiCaprio is more impressive than he’s been in some time, exuding a charm that I’d never really felt from him before. The design is lavish, the parties exquisitely debauched, the ugly sheen of these dourly rich people compellingly cold. It’s simplistic in ways, and too much in others, but this isn’t amateurish spectacle. Luhrmann knows how to tell a story in his way, and he tells it well.

Luhrmann has seemingly recast Gatsby as a kind of tragic ’20s fairytle; a grotesque fantasia of warped extravagance echoing throughout the empty halls of wealth. When Gatsby speaks of how splendid his cavernous mansion looks with Daisy climbing one of its staircases, he hints at something I thought the film quite cleverly parallelled; for all the beauty wealth and class can construct, it’s nothing without human warmth inside. With this film, I can’t help but think people are looking too intently at what lines the walls rather than who lives between them.