Review: The Great Gatsby

 
Steve Dinneen
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FILM
12A | by Steve Dinneen
Two stars

YOU have to admire Baz Luhrmann’s balls. Not literally, of course, that won't be necessary, not for the purposes of this review. No, you have to admire his metaphorical balls for adapting one of the best-loved novels of the 20th century; one that is admired for its subtle prose and its subtext and lots of other things that Luhrmann’s work is not admired for in the slightest.

For some reason – and this is no reflection on Fitzgerald – it brought to mind the dilemma facing Ron Howard when he was handed the daunting task of adapting The Da Vinci Code. How do you begin to interpret the delicate intonations of Dan Brown’s serpentine magnum opus? The Da Vinci code was, of course, actually a comment on the state of the publishing industry. Dan Brown, with his mind immeasurably superior ours, set out to prove that publishers would print anything, literally anything, no matter how creakingly obese the structure, how offensively blunt the prose or preposterous the narrative – and, moreover, that we would lap it up like senile dogs gnawing our way through a thicket of nettles. It’s a subtext Howard sadly missed. Adapting popular novels is a tricky business indeed.

Anyway, I digress. Approaching Luhrmann’s adaptation as some kind of definitive retelling is missing the point: you don’t watch his Romeo and Juliet for a probing insight into the mind of the bard. The Great Gatsby feels like a movie about the book, rather than a movie of the book. In the original text there were hints that Nick Carraway was novelising the events – Luhrmann takes this idea a few dozen steps further and has him dictating the manuscript to his psychiatrist. The text takes on a tangible presence, with words jumping off his typewriter on to the screen, using an effect that looks like it was knocked up in PowerPoint (incidentally, this review contains spoilers; given it’s an adaptation of one of the classic 20th century novels, I’m going to give you the benefit of the doubt and assume you’ve read it).

True to form, Luhrmann conjures some impressive stylistic flourishes. Gatsby blazing through otherwise monochrome landscapes in full, gleaming technicolour is exhilarating, as are the vertiginous, swooping shots of 1920s New York City. The soundtrack, curated by Jay-Z, also works well in the context of a decadent prohibition US.

While Gatsby’s manor looks a little too much like the Disney palace, the rest of the staging is immaculate, as are the costumes. Gatsby’s famous parties, though, despite coming complete with trapeze artists, swimming pools and an obscenely large church organ, fail to capture the glamour of the novel. They look more like up-market Ibiza foam parties.

DiCaprio is passable as Gatsby (certainly better than Robert Redford), while Carey Mulligan has perfected looking exactly like a puppy that has just received a sharp kick to the ribs; all glassy eyes and trembling lip. So far, so-so. As a period romp loosely inspired by a famous novel, it just about works.

But then Luhrmann decides Fitzgerald got the ending wrong. In the novel, Gatsby’s death is almost incidental. The entire sequence lasts two pages. Without his dreams of Daisy (or at least what Daisy represented), Gatsby simply disappears, fading away like a ghost. No pomp or ceremony, just a third-hand retelling of what might have happened. Wilson, his killer, merely facilitates this.

Luhrmann, though, opts for a big, overblown, melodramatic finale with slow-motion and flashbacks and whispered final words. The sheer profanity of it made me throw up in my mouth. The more I thought about what Luhrmann had done, the worse it got, until there was sick in my lap and sick on the people in front of me and sick in my shoes. There was no stopping it: it was like a wayward fireman’s hose, streams of vomit whipping across the cinema, dousing everyone in sight, raining down like a rancid tropical storm, only subsiding after the screen itself was subsumed by the dripping, bilious remains of my lunch. That may be an exaggeration, but not by much.

After The Great Gatsby was published, Fitzgerald said he hated the title and wished he had changed it. It is somehow appropriate that these words linger on screen at the end of Luhrmann’s adaptation: Fitzgerald would have hated this, too.

BALLET
THE GREAT GATSBY
Sadler's Wells Theatre | By Alex Dymoke
Two stars

BAZ Luhrmann’s take on F Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel is the latest film adaptation to leave the critics stern-faced. Perhaps this wordiest of literary classics is better expressed worldlessly? Perhaps not. Northern Ballet’s production sticks too rigidly to a scene by scene recreation of the book and, as a result, denies itself any momentum of its own.

It lacks the great groundswells of emotion that one might expect from a ballet adaptation of The Great Gatsby.

It has it’s good points: often Gatsby adaptations get too caught up in all the opulence and end up complicit with the meretriciousness that the book disapproves of. With delicate golden drapes and translucent screens, this production deserves credit for its subtle, pared down sets.

However, with two acts at over an hour long, it all begins to drag.

THEATRE
PUBLIC ENEMY
The Young Vic | By Steve Dinneen
Three stars

Ibsen’s searing, borderline messianic play about environmental disaster and the danger of mob rule is remarkably prescient, given it was written well over a century ago.

Public Enemy, a variation on the more common translation An Enemy of the People, sees two brothers – one the mayor of a Norwegian spa town, the other its doctor – go to war after the doctor discovers potentially deadly bacteria lurking in the bathing water.

Barbed swipes at both politicians and the media seem particularly relevant in this post-Leveson environment.

Nick Fletcher plays the principled but flawed Dr Stockmann with verve and finesse, and is especially impressive as he grandstands to the audience in a monologue that lasts almost 30 minutes.

However, despite Stockmann’s rapidly burgeoning narcissus complex – he cares more about his perception and persecution than actually fixing the problems of the community – the play is almost unwaveringly sympathetic to the protagonist, with everyone else painted as stooges to the corrupt system. A little more complexity would not have gone amiss.

EXHIBITION
WALK THROUGH BRITISH ART
Tate Britain | by Joseph Funnell
Four stars

THIS week marked the end of a nine-month period over which more than 500 works of British art, from the sixteenth century to the present day, were re-hung at the Tate Britain, all according to date.

By abandoning thematic groupings in favour of a “radical chronology”, director Penelope Curtis hopes that we “see the continuities of old and new as something to celebrate”. Visitors enter into a procession of patriotic pageantry, where the terms “great art” and “Great-British art” are interchangeable. Each epoch is announced with a gold date at the threshold, ensuring you too have your place in history.

While the uniform grey walls have a whiff of totalitarianism to them, this is not a propagandistic story of the state collection but an intriguing exploration that throws up handfuls of historical surprises. Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema’s sickly-sweet sentimental bathers sit alongside Walter Sickert’s gritty view of a naked prostitute. A late Leon Kossoff rubs shoulders with an early Damien Hirst. By doing away with the “isms” that have long been a lynchpin of gallery displays, we are forced to look afresh at art in step with time. The effect is both disturbing and beautiful.

More works fill the galleries than ever (especially sculpture) and a little extra searching is required to find old-favourites. Even so, they are still here, from Henry Moore to William Blake. The most revolutionary change, however, is the almost complete abandonment of that long contested aid/burden to the gallery experience: the wall label. Rather than being confronted with endless texts to explain what we see, viewers are encouraged to look for themselves. While a few historical signposts remain, it is this insistence on the view that makes this walk a success.

THEATRE
THE HOTHOUSE
Trafalgar Studios | by Alex Dymoke
Four stars

IN A nameless institution, a nameless inmate has just died. Another has given birth, and no one, least of all the boss, seems to know what is going on. The Hothouse – Harold Pinter’s third play, written in 1987 – is a tragicomic farce that has been updated in rip-roaring fashion by Jamie Lloyd in this new production at Trafalgar Studios.

Pinter seeks to satirise the cruel, smiling banality of totalitarianism, but despite some decidedly dark moments, Lloyd focuses on the comic absurdity at the expense of heavy-handed allegorising. The result is a boisterously entertaining play that lacks the full weight of Pinter’s political insights.

Simon Russell Beale excels as the aerated, slightly potty institution overlord Roote, whose unnerving mixture of power-addiction and senility also makes him easy to manipulate. His face swells and his temper frays as various insubordinate colleagues run rings around him. One of these colleagues is lanky doctor Gibbs, played by an unfeeling, coldly institutional John Simm. They make a great comic pair, Gibbs all legs and pedantry, Russell Beale harassed and rotund, even if some of the jokes get lost in all the drunken shouting towards the end.

Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy by David Hockney