directed by Mira Nair
starring Reese Witherspoon, James Purefoy, Bob Hoskins, Jim Broadbent, Romola Garai, Johnathan Rhys Meyers, Rhys Ifans
With much pomp and circumstance, director Mira Nair (Monsoon Wedding) has adapted William Makepiece Thackery’s, Vanity Fair for the big screen. Her cinematically bright version manages to capture the essence of the novel’s plot while playing fast and loose with some of the characterizations.
Vanity Fair tells the story of Becky Sharp (Reese Witherspoon), a 19th century girl who tires of toiling away in the doldrums of poverty. Becky wants to be the life of the party who stays after for a very long time. This is her singular, driving ambition.
Despite being the simple daughter of an artist and an opera singer, Becky Sharp’s got all the skills to climb the ladder of high society. Becky is the original Material Girl. She’s educated, manipulative and crafty enough to use her wits and beauty to her advantage. Not even being born into the lower class hinders this headstrong, frisky lass from getting what she wants.
Becky’s survival is done by sheer charm, beauty and grace. She begins her life as a governess and over time becomes a powerful and elite member of polite Society. She gets going quickly, serving under Sir Pitt Crawly (Bob Hoskins) faithfully, until she encounters his older (and wealthier) sister Matilda (Dame Eileen Atkins, who steals the film). Matilda is wooed and wowed and invites Becky to London to work for her. This is where Becky does her best damage. London is a city of wealth and power full of important people. Upon arriving there she manages to tame her future husband, Rawdon Crawley (James Purefoy) and her future benefactor the Marquis of Steyne (played with a delightful ruthlessness by Gabriel Byrne).
Despite all of her machinations, plotting and intrigue, the one person she sticks by loyally is her best friend Amelia Sedley (Romola Garai). Amelia’s story counterbalances Becky’s tumult in Thackery’s novel. Here Nair broadens her role, creating a powerful woman whose love for Captain George Osborne (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) eclipses her ability to see the burning love that Captain William Dobbin (Rhys Ifans) has for her. Her story is a nice parallel for Becky and provides a moral focus for the story. By bringing a quiet dignity to the role, Garai transforms Amelia into something deeper.
Rhys Ifans is definitely on a roll. His role in this film and Danny Deckchair has made him a bankable star. In this film he provides a much-needed quiet comedic relief. Dobbin wears many hats in this story, funny, serene, calm, pleasant and kind. But he also has an edge and despair about him that audiences can relate with. Ifans performance is subtle, yet enriching.
The rest of the ensemble is stellar. Meyers’ George is snide, vacuous and enjoyable to watch as he plots and sneaks around. Jim Broadbent is terrifying as George’s powerful father. It is great to see Bob Hoskins on the screen again. His nuanced performance blends crass impoliteness with a warm sense of comedic charm that makes him endearing. Sir Pit Crawley is not a nice bloke but somehow we feel for him. Based on his performance here, James Purefoy is assured a greater selection of roles. His intense, willful and daring Rawdon is the perfect antagonist for Witherspoon.
At a time when staging lavish costume dramas has become risky for the box office, Nair’s Vanity Fair is indeed a spectacle to behold. The film’s strength is its cast led by a daring and innovative performance by Reese Witherspoon.
Witherspoon is a dramatic tour de force. She manages the difficult task of wrapping herself in her accent, becoming entirely believable. At the same time she acts with a great deal of emotion by not uttering a word. Each stare, expression and smile ensnares both her intended prey as well as the audience. She has taken a socially repulsive woman and made her likable and interesting without sacrificing glamour. She took a big chance in taking this role and it seems to have paid off.
Despite the spicy richness, Vanity Fair has some flaws. Thackery’s novel is an epic that spans forty years and shows the transformation of Becky from peasant girl into a ruthless and hard-nosed mover and shaker. Along the way we see her scheme, plot and take full advantage of every resource available to her. Along the way, we also really hate her. Mira Nair’s cinematic version does this as well, yet suffers from two main problems. First, Becky is toned down too severely. Her ruthlessness has been tapered with wide-eyed wonderment and softer characterization. Witherspoon is terrific in the film, but she could have been better if she were allowed to dig beneath the surface and flesh out the darkness and deceptiveness that Thackery created. Second, Nair’s film is a grandiose exercise in self-indulgent filmmaking. Watching the film is indeed a feast with great acting, terrific sets and amazing costumes. But somehow, Nair loses her way and tries to do too much at once, causing the plot to become convoluted in places. Despite outdoing herself in filming bloody battlefields and exotic Indian locales, Nair leaves the audience feeling somewhat left behind. This is primarily because Nair’s adaptation lacks the finesse and cohesion needed for an adaptation of this scope.
Vanity Fair is a good film for those who loved the book or those who really appreciate costume dramas and period pieces. It’s a little too long in places, but the performances, particularly Witherspoon and Purefoy, give it enough weight that you don’t really mind. This is a well crafted filmmaking at its finest.
Vanity Fair Movie: www.vanityfairmovie.com