Every year, it seems, movie audiences are subjected to another period film that reminds them once again of the glory of the British Empire and allows a few American actors to practice their British accents. This year’s offering is “Vanity Fair,” based on the William Makepeace Thackeray novel (which I’m sure you’ve all read), scripted by Gosford Park’s Julian Fellowes, and directed by Mira Nair of Monsoon Wedding fame. It’s a lavish production, make no mistake, with opulent locales and extravagant costuming, and for the most part it’s a good film. Unfortunately, Nair reigns in some of her protagonist’s more unsavory traits, defanging what might have been a fine adaptation.
Vanity Fair, the novel, was an exposé of the greed and corruption in English society during the Napoleonic wars, while Nair’s film is…less so. Thackeray’s characters were written almost wholly without sympathy, which led critics to accuse him of being too cynical. Contemporary scholars tend to find him overly sentimental, which doesn’t prove much, except that academics can never make up their minds. Nair, on the other hand, presents her protagonists in a more sympathetic light.
The character of Becky Sharp (Reese Witherspoon), the orphaned daughter of an English artist and a French chorus girl, is the template by which all gold diggers in subsequent literary and cinematic efforts should be judged. In Thackeray’s novel, she is conniving, unsympathetic, and dedicated to her own social advancement over anything else, including being a wife and mother. When we are first introduced to her, it is apparent that she will stop at nothing to achieve what she perceives to be her deserved place in high society.
She starts by leaving Pinkerton’s, her orphanage/finishing school, with her best (and only) friend Amelia Sedley (Romola Garai). Becky has a job waiting for her as a governess, but she takes some time to flirt with Amelia’s socially awkward brother Jos (Tony Maudsley), whom Amelia thinks would be a good match for her. The idea is nixed by George Osborne (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers), Amelia’s effete prick of a fiancé, who convinces Jos that Becky is beneath him.
Undaunted, Becky assumes her job looking after the children of Sir Pitt Crawley (Bob Hoskins), where she wins over his household and, more importantly, his rich aunt Matilde (Eileen Atkins), who finds something of a kindred spirit in Becky. Soon, Matilde has invited the governess to come with her to Mayfair. Becky agrees, knowing that a move to London is the best way to insinuate herself into even higher ranks of the aristocracy. She starts off with a bang, eloping with Rawdon Crawley (James Purefoy), Matilde’s nephew and heir to the Crawley fortune. For a wedding present, Matilde disowns him (seems she wasn’t as fond of young Becky as she let on), leaving the newly pregnant couple with barely a farthing to their names.
But there’s no time for that now; Napoleon is on the march, and Rawdon and George, both soldiers, are soon sent off to Europe to fight him. George, before disembarking, marries Amelia, which causes his father (Jim Broadbent) to disown him (disinheriting someone was apparently the 19th century English equivalent of taking away the car keys). As if that wasn’t bad enough, George dies at Waterloo, leaving Amelia penniless. Good thing she doesn’t know her late husband tried to get Becky to run off with him, I guess.
Back in London, things quickly reach a boiling point. Mired in debt, Rawdon and Becky’s marriage becomes strained, a fact not helped by the entrance of the Marquess of Steyne (Gabriel Byrne), a benefactor – of sorts – with more than charity on his mind.
There are some good performances in “Vanity Fair.” Witherspoon continues to show her range after stalling a bit with Legally Blonde 2 and Sweet Home Alabama (it’s hard to believe “Freeway’s” Vanessa Lutz is all grown up). Her Becky is canny enough, but lacks some of the venom of her literary forebear. Besides, the best lines are reserved for Atkins, who has the bulk of the film’s laugh out loud moments, and Byrne, whose verbal assault on his wife and daughter-in-law at their dining room table is the stuff of movie legend.
(And if the Academy gave an Oscar for Best Cleavage, “Vanity Fair” would be the odds-on favorite. Guys, if period pieces aren’t your bag and the missus is forcing you to see this, at least you’ll have plenty to look at.)
Pacing is a problem, however. Nair must have reached a point about three-quarters of the way through principal photography when she realized she’d barely shot half the script. From about the 90-minute mark on, “Vanity Fair” seems rushed and disjointed, as major plot points come fast and furious with little narrative exposition, and none of this is helped by the sheer tonnage of melodrama playing out on screen. The hurried fashion in which the movie wraps up and the tacked on “happy ending,” where hope is found anew and all dangling plot threads are wrapped up in a scant ten minutes, transforms “Vanity Fair” from an examination of a woman who will do anything to get what she wants into a below par love story, albeit one with great costumes.
Nair’s use of her homeland as a significant element adds color to the proceedings, but a tacked on scene where Steyne puts Becky in the Indian version of “A Chorus Line” stops the film dead. And one can’t help wondering if enjoying the film’s denouement in India isn’t somehow insincere, seeing as how we’re inadvertently cheering for the colonial interlopers.
“Vanity Fair” offers a generally clever and well-acted respite from the usual seizure-inducing summer movie fare. It’s by no means a classic, but the dialogue and high caliber of performances mean you’ll get your money’s worth, especially if you’re really into empire waistlines and that infamous English haughtiness.
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