Carey Mulligan has always wanted a killer line. In a 2009 interview with the New York Times, she wondered where all the good lines had gone, the ones she remembered from a youth spent watching family friendly action films like Indiana Jones. “Someone’s almost fallen off a cliff,” she said, “and then they don’t, and then they say this killer line … ” Some four years later, Mulligan’s memories of her childhood action heroes seem like an almost perfect description of Daisy Buchanan, a woman who is always almost falling off a cliff, then not, then delivering a killer line.
Mulligan’s portrayal of Daisy in Baz Luhrmann’s new adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic novel The Great Gatsby demonstrates a deep understanding of something essential to Daisy’s character, if not the story as a whole: Daisy’s voice. From the minute we meet her in the book, her cousin Nick (who serves as the narrator in both versions) describes her voice as the most memorable thing about her, more than her lovely physical appearance. He says:
“It was the kind of voice that the ear follows up and down, as if speech is an arrangement of notes that will never be played again. 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 a while since and that there were gay, exciting things hovering in the next hour.”
Daisy’s voice casts such a strong spell over her suitors because it manipulates the way that men think about time—her voice is simultaneously the past, the present and the future. It suggests where she has been as well as where she is going, all while demanding that the listener be present right now in order to hear it. After all, it is an arrangement of notes that will never be played again.
Mulligan delivers Daisy’s lines beautifully, from the barely contained excitement of first hearing his name—”What Gatsby?”—to the emotional confusion of being reunited with him—”I’ve never seen such beautiful shirts!”—to the deep scorn she finally shows her husband—”You’re revolting.” Yet one of the story’s most troubling aspects is that in key moments of her life, Daisy becomes unwilling or unable to exercise that voice. In the climactic argument between Tom and Gatsby, where Daisy’s future hangs in the balance, “she draws further and further into herself,” eventually becoming only “that lost voice across the room.”
Daisy’s character is often criticized as being shallow, something that Mulligan herself had to wrestle with. In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, she said there is “a real weakness and cowardice to how she behaves at the end, so there’s huge holes in her character.” However, the holes in her character are meant to expose the much deeper holes in the society where Daisy and Tom are certified members, a society in which Gatsby is only a tourist. In the novel, Nick and Gatsby once discuss Daisy’s voice with each other. Nick is the narrator in the following passage, speaking to Gatsby:
“‘She’s got an indiscreet voice,’ I remarked. ‘It’s full of—’ I hesitated.
“‘Her voice is full of money,’ he said suddenly.
“That was it. I’d never understood before. It was full of money—that was the inexhaustible charm that rose and fell in it, the jingle of it, the cymbals’ song of it … . High in a white palace the king’s daughter, the golden girl … .”
The power of Daisy’s voice, and ultimately all of its weaknesses, comes from money. This is one of the central conceits of Gatsby, perhaps one of the most obvious ones: Money gives people the ability to do horrible things and get away with them.
Luhrmann’s cinematic Gatsby ultimately falls somewhat short in fully confronting this truth. Gatsby is often presented, not always positively, as a story about “the American dream,” a story about a man who wants something so badly that he literally transforms his life through the back channels of market capitalism in order to get it. It was this interpretation of the film that drew Luhrmann to his executive music producer, Jay-Z. Luhrmann said that when he discussed the project with Jay-Z, “[Jay-Z] totally nailed that the book was aspirational. That the book was really about, if you’ve got a cause, you can move towards a green light. That you don’t reach it isn’t the point; that you aspire is.” What’s lost in this analysis is the fact that what Gatsby is reaching for is disgusting.
Luhrmann has always believed in emotional excess and visual spectacle as aesthetic devices that provide insight to some deeper, more fundamental truths: the love shared by Romeo and Juliet, for example, or his equally star-crossed protagonists Christian and Satine, whose feelings for each other in Moulin Rouge! can overpower the wealthy bad guy. But in Gatsby, of course, the bad guy wins.
For all of his devotion to Fitzgerald’s original text, Luhrmann misses a key moment of Daisy’s voice that brings, if just for a minute, some of the human warmth that he has historically been so talented at drawing out of visually elaborate sequences. It’s a moment where Daisy Buchanan sings. She is sitting on the front steps of Gatsby’s mansion, waiting for the car with her husband Tom and her cousin, Nick Carraway. The party wasn’t much fun for any of them, and they left before it was over, the music wafting around to the front of the house. And then: “Daisy began to sing with the music in a husky, rhythmic whisper, bringing out a meaning in each word that it had never had before and would never have again … each change tipped out a little of her warm human magic upon the air.”
Craig Eley is a graduate student at The University of Iowa, currently residing in Austin, TX