You can’t repeat the past… but you can re-imagine and recreate it, as in director Baz Luhrmann’s lavish, bold, brilliant, beautiful film version of ‘The Great Gatsby’ – very much a Gatsby for today.

Luhrmann has been quoted recently as saying that he and his wife, Catherine Martin – the film’s Oscar winning producer, costume and production designer – are ‘research junkies’ who have been  living the life of Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald for years. And it shows on screen.

F Scott Fitzgerald’s intention was to distil the essence of an age, and Luhrmann has distilled the essence of the novel onto the screen in a version that mixes in some plot changes with today’s technology to create the most opulent mise-en-scène of any of the Gatsby recreations.

In the 3-D version, lines from the famous novel seem to float on your nose and the famous Green Light from Daisy’s pier which opens the film now deposits us with Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire, channelling Fitzgerald’s real life problems with alcohol) in a sanatorium reliving the events of that summer of 1922.

It’s well known that Baz Luhrmann doesn’t do understated.  Gatsby’s parties and the shots establishing the Roaring Twenties and New York cityscapes are breathtaking. Expect the Gatsby mansion at West Egg to seem like a Gothic castle crammed with old masters; while diametrically opposite, at the Buchanan’s, waiters and butlers seem balletically choreographed while serving meals.

When we meet the mysterious Gatsby, Leonardo Di Caprio is truly ‘gorgeous’ and Gershwin is playing.  Leo’s Gatsby is harder than in previous versions – scarily vulnerable, bright and choked with an impossible romantic obsession, but also near the edge and ready to erupt.

Carey Mulligan’s Daisy is constantly alluring and shiny but jagged, like her fabulous Prada “Chandelier Dress’.  Joel Edgerton plays the wealthy American sporting aristocrat, adulterous Tom Buchanan, whose racism is frequently on show.  Elizabeth Debicki is the golf pro, Jordon Baker, that Carraway briefly romances.

There isn’t enough of Isla Fisher as Myrtle Wilson (Buchanan’s mistress) and her hapless husband (Jason Clark); the scenes at their garage in the ‘valley of ashes’, overseen by the billboard eyes of Dr T J Eckleburg, seem too brief.

The most unusual casting – a nod perhaps to the centenary of Bollywood? – is Amitabh Bachchan (the legendary Big B) as Gatsby’s Jewish business partner, Meyer Wolfsheim.

The pop and jazz soundtrack echoes the film’s doomed romantic mood – especially in the second half when events become darker.

Luhrmann has created a new and different interpretation of Gatsby and his ‘incorruptible dream’ – a film for our times and the perfect summer cinema entertainment.


Prepare to be engulfed by Gatsby.  2013 promises to be the year when F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic 1920s novel makes a comeback – if it had ever been away – thanks to Baz Luhrmann’s extravagant film version starring Leonardo di Caprio, which opens the Cannes Film Festival before its world release. This 5th film version – following the Hollywood versions of 1926, 1949, 1974, and a 2000 TV movie – promises to be the most spectacular yet, courtesy of the special Luhrmann touch.

In the film’s wake comes a deluge of promotional opportunities to relive the ‘20s through party offers for New York’s 21 Club whose art deco atmosphere testifies to its origins as a speakeasy in the Prohibition Era. Here we can sip Gatsby inspired cocktails – Lavender Lime Rickey, Mint Julep, Beautiful Fool. Or closer to home, VisitEngland is offering luxury Gatsby ‘roaring 20s’ holidays at the Waldorf or Ritz, while the Prada designed film costumes are set to tour the world.

In danger of getting lost among the razzmatazz are the original novel and genius that created it, author F. Scott Fitzgerald, who died in Hollywood in 1940, aged 44, as an almost forgotten alcoholic, in the midst of a love affair with Hollywood columnist Sheila Graham.

He had tumbled far from his celebrity status of the 1920s, when Scott and his wife Zelda came to embody the Jazz Age lifestyle

Like other geniuses of the American arts world such as Orson Welles and Marlon Brando, Scott was born in Midwest America, at St Paul’s Minnesota in 1896, a place to which he often returned at key turning points of his career.

He gained early experience of East Coast life as a child in Buffalo, at Catholic prep school in New Jersey, at Princeton University and a spell in the army 1917-19, where stationed in the South he met Southern belle Zelda.

His writing career took off in the 1920s with a series of novels from ‘This Side of Paradise’ in 1920 which made him and Zelda the poster couple of the extravagant flapper era, living the high life in New York, Paris and the French Riviera.

The 1930s however saw their mutual descent – Scott into alcoholism, Zelda into madness (she was committed to an asylum for life in 1936) – and Scott’s final novel ‘The Last Tycoon’ was left unfinished.

Mid career, however, he had created his undoubted masterpiece ‘The Great Gatsby’, written in the Riviera and Rome over the years 1924-25.

But why is this hailed as one of greatest novels of all times?

Critic Robert McCrum talks of “the miracle of Fitzgerald’s prose and the strange subtlety of his vision. In 1925, Gatsby was ahead of its time, and almost too prescient. Now, it seems perfectly in harmony with the deepest and darkest chords in American life. That’s why, for some, including this writer, it remains the greatest American novel of the 20th century.”

To critic Sarah Churchwell, author of a forthcoming book on Gatsby, it is Fitzgerald’s message for our times that is most vivid. “The jazz age may have ended, but the age of advertisement had begun, and in Gatsby Fitzgerald wrote one of the earliest indictments of a nation in thrall to the false gods of the marketplace. Nearly a century later, his cautionary tale has returned to haunt us, warning again of the perils of boom and bust, holding a mirror up to our tarnished world. Fitzgerald’s hero, the poor farm boy named Jimmy Gatz who reinvents himself as Jay Gatsby, who “sprang from a Platonic conception of himself”, epitomises the self-made man. But Gatsby is also unmade by his faith in America’s myths and lies: that meritocracy is real, that you can make yourself into whatever you want to be, that with money, anything is possible.” Shades of TV series Mad Men’ s contemporary exploration of the brittle nature of the American Dream?

To end on a pub quiz question – What did the F in F. Scott Fitzgerald stand for and where did this name come from? Answers on a cocktail mat, please.

Sarah Churchwell’s Careless People: Murder, Mayhem and the Invention of The Great Gatsby will be published by Virago on June 6. The Great Gatsby  – 3D and 2D, directed by Baz Luhrmann is released  in UK on May 16.