The news Baz Luhrmann was adapting The Great Gatsby was met with mass trepidation. Doubters were worried the Aussie director - with style to rival an obese synthetic peacock ruptured from excess cocaine - could never do justice to F. Scott Fitzgerald's cynical classic about the moral bankruptcy of decadent New Yorkers in the Roaring Twenties. I was in the band of sceptics, but the 142 minutes of hyperactive 3D and vertiginous camerawork left me woozy - and charmed.
Tobey Maguire plays Nick Carraway, who as narrator recounts his summer of 1922. He's now in therapy, a morbid alcoholic riven by anxiety and anger, who's encouraged by his shrink to write his memories down for solace. Aside from this framing device, Luhrmann stays very true to the novel's plot and dialogue. Carraway recalls shifting to New York to become a bond salesman - and moving next-door to mysterious millionaire and bootlegger Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio), who hosts extravagant parties at his mansion – and pines for his love obsession, the married Daisy (Carey Mulligan). The drama plays out to its inevitable grievous end, as the wide-eyed and increasingly appalled Carraway looks on.
While the '20s is an era ripe for retro nostalgia, Luhrmann - crude as he may be - in his take on Fitzgerald paradoxically avoids the obvious. The glam get-ups of bob-haired flappers, the art-deco stylings, the fabulous automobiles, are all there, but a reverent replica of the times isn't what he's striving for. Gatsby's parties - heaving with packed-in celebrants, inflatable zebras, glitter - are predictably enough for Luhrmann like some kind of modern-day rave-up mardi gras. But the best scene is a frenzy of OTT-ness offset by endearing hesitation. Taking place at Carraway's, it sees Gatsby first reunited with Daisy, after bringing a worker brigade to make over the digs to impress her. In a room brimming with over-sized blooms and pastel cakes ("Do you think it's too much?" Gatsby asks) the rain-drenched hopeful fidgets, beside himself with nerves, soundtracked by a jazzy cover of Beyonce's Crazy in Love. It's winningly surreal comedy with a hint of Tim Burton - and as a backdrop makes us all the more off-guard when the real emotion of the situation comes through.
Luhrmann drenches the film in the swooning melodrama of downbeat-indie pop, from Lana del Rey's Young and Beautiful to a Jack White version of Love Is Blindness. It's in no small part thanks to Leonardo DiCaprio's fine performance as Gatsby - and let's not forget the resonant, heartbreaking brilliance of Fitzgerald's tale itself - that these swathes of feeling sometimes reach beyond the crassly manufactured. Most interestingly, the very thing about Luhrmann's style is its sheer immediacy, and that hits on the novel's essence in a way retro never could. "Can't repeat the past? Why of course you can!" Gatsby insists to Carraway as he grasps for Daisy's return. His downfall stems from naive hope that he can embalm time, and Luhrmann refuses to collude with his delusion.