Vanity Fair: Better than CliffsNotes, but where is that bad girl Becky?(A review of Mira Nair's film) By Poonam Srivastava "Vanity Fair"
Director: Mira Nair
A Tempesta Films/Granada Film production
Screenwriters: Matthew Faulk, Mark Skeet, Julian Fellowes
Based on the novel by: William Makepeace Thackeray
Cast: Reese Witherspoon (Becky Sharp), Eileen Atkins (Matilda Crawley), Jim Broadbent (Mr. Osborne), Gabriel Byrne (Marquess), Romola Garai (Amelia Sedley), Bob Hoskins (Sir Pitt Crawley), Rhys Ifans (William Dobbin), Geraldine McEwan (Lady Southdown), James Purefoy (Rawdon Crawley)
Running time: 140 minutes
Vanity Fair, William Makepeace Thackeray's nineteenth-century English novel, was a favorite novel of mine as a teenager. I loved the scathing satire on society and the fierce vixen protagonist who made her own rules as she played that game, society. Vanity Fair, Mira Nair's film, recreates the characters and the scenes and holds closely to the story line. Then, the ending is a spinning Bollywood tribute that is entertaining, clever, daring but definitely out of order with the film. Mira Nair succeeds in all the parts -- the characters, the costumes, the story line -- but somehow the putting together of these parts undoes the film. As a cinematic event, Vanity Fair's organic whole is lesser than the sum of its parts.
I was especially disappointed that one of the strongest, most nuanced women of literature, Rebecca Sharp, played by Reese Witherspoon, is so blandly likeable. Becky Sharp certainly always had my sympathy and support not because she was good and deserving, but because she was able and fierce. It was her layers of sharpness, her playing with the fires of British upper society -- the envy,¬†the selfishness, the lust and the greed -- and entering that upper society, it was her scheming, and her callousness as well as her true generous, intelligent spirit that textured my appreciation of this woman. Witherspoon, as Becky, goes from her lowly birth, to an artist and a French chorus singer, through the machinations of becoming a governess and marrying her way up the ladder -- much as any likable young woman goes at it. This could be Legally Blond for g-sakes. Gone are the disturbing elements of abandoning mate and child. Gone is the sharp-toothed, sexy and smart woman that betrays friends, lovers and nobility -- and who has haunted libraries and book shelves everywhere for the over one and a half centuries. In Napoleonic England, Thackeray's Becky got as dirty as the best of them. Although Witherspoon certainly has what it takes to bring out the vice in a nice girl, as seen in Election, it fails to come out in this film.
She does hold a perfect English accent and dances beautifully in the surprising Bollywood ending. I enjoyed that dance immensely. Still it felt all wrong. The dance took the place of the naughty charades game in the book. It certainly was naughty, but it was also such an artifice. One can surely see that Becky has what it takes to recreate her life ... but as a dancer?
The other actors shine but fail to reflect each other's lights. They are beautiful and promising and then fizzle away. There are, however, some remarkable moments. Eileen Atkins (Gosford Park) is superb as Miss Matilda Crawley. Miss Crawley is a spinster whose wit finds a match in Becky. Becky comes into contact with the aging, loaded lady when she is a governess interested in her best friend Amelia Sedley's brother, Joseph. When Becky turns her charms and snares on the old woman's nephew Rawdon Crawley (James Purefoy) instead, well ... betrayal is hardly purer. As the lovers learn to live on credit, as the handsome Rawdon gambles it all away, Becky becomes the mistress of the Marquis of Steyne (Gabriel Bryne) who hobnobs with no lesser royalty than the King.
The film is long and frustrating. It is also gorgeous and a good refresher for one of the all-time great stories that inspired the likes of Gone With The Wind and Bonfire of the Vanities. So, yeah, go and see it. Just pick a day when you are not too demanding. Or better yet, why don't you just wait and rent the DVD on some snowy or rainy night.