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The Great Gatsby: Baz Luhrmann takes a classic story in a new direction

With trailer: In taking on the adaption of the classic novel, Baz Luhrmann says he's presented himself with an unenviable task.

Carey Mulligan and Leonardo DiCaprio in The Great Gatsby. Courtesy Warner Bros.
Carey Mulligan and Leonardo DiCaprio in The Great Gatsby. Courtesy Warner Bros.

There comes a time when every director has to decide. Back in the autumn of 2010, Baz Luhrmann had to flip the proverbial coin. Heads he goes with another musical - perfect, you might think, for the director who brought us Strictly Ballroom and Moulin Rouge! Or tails he takes on The Great Gatsby, F Scott Fitzgerald's classic 1925 novel set among Long Island's social elite. "It's definitely one of the ones I have under consideration," he stated. "I've owned the rights for several years and I've worked on the text for a long time."

In the end, Luhrmann plumped for Fitzgerald's tale about the enigmatic playboy Jay Gatsby. "It's second only to Gone with the Wind as a recognisable title," he notes. "What defines it is that it captures, fundamentally, something that is so absolutely inherent to the American condition. And that is, in a country of possibility and ambition, when someone has ambition. Gatsby is born with ambition and possibility and when that meets opportunity, it can be both beautiful and tragic in an operatic sense. And also, it's a tremendously good reflection of the curvature of the social and economic arc in recent times."

Arguably, choosing to take on Fitzgerald was the more difficult choice, a poisoned cinematic chalice that has flummoxed filmmakers in the past. Back in 1949, Elliott Nugent's attempt saw Alan Ladd play Gatsby and Betty Field co-star as Daisy Buchanan, the married socialite he becomes drawn to. In 1974, from a script by Francis Ford Coppola, Robert Redford and Mia Farrow played the roles. Neither film worked - though both far outstripped the last time the story was attempted, in 2000, with Toby Stephens and Mira Sorvino starring in a cut-price made-for-television version.

Luhrmann, at least, had an ace in his pack - casting Leonardo DiCaprio as Gatsby. "It was always Leonardo," he stresses. The actor who truly became a global star after playing the lead in Luhrmann's beloved 1996 take on Romeo + Juliet, he was meant to reunite with the director on a mooted biopic of Alexander the Great - until Oliver Stone's rival project got there first. Casting the British actress Carey Mulligan as Daisy, Luhrmann brought in a number of Australians to flesh out the support - Joel Edgerton as Daisy's husband Tom Buchanan, Isla Fisher as Tom's lover Myrtle Wilson and Jason Clarke as her lifeless husband George Wilson.

Then there's DiCaprio's long-time friend Tobey Maguire, cast in the crucial role of the story's narrator - and Gatsby's neighbour - Nick Carraway. Luhrmann sees him as the story's linchpin. "It's a very personal statement by a character, Nick, who realises that all of the people he believes in, all of the things he believed in, all of them turned to dust. And although Gatsby is the poster boy for everything he has an unaffected scorn for, he is nonetheless forgiven because he did it for love. He had truth in his heart. And that I think makes him great. That makes him a great person."

With the film shot in Sydney on a lavish US$127 million (Dh466m) budget, and in 3-D, with Jay-Z providing the soundtrack, Luhrmann knows he's presented himself with an unenviable task. "It's tricky," he admits. "If you get it wrong, there are games certain critics are going to play with the title. But I don't really care about that. I go towards things that are challenging and scary for me - but I want to see them up there. If I'd walked away from that, I wouldn't have tried to reinvent the musical or have a go at making Shakespeare popular or do a ballroom dancing film." Touché.

artslife@thenational.ae

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