Flawed but fair adaptation of Thackeray's novel
Rob Levy
9/5/2004 10:02:52 PM

With much pomp and circumstance, director Mira Nair (Monsoon Wedding) has adapted
William Makepeace Thackeray’s Vanity Fair for the big screen. Her film 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’s singular, driving ambition is to be the life of the party who stays after for a very long time.

Despite being the simple daughter of an artist and an opera singer, Becky Sharp has all the skills to climb the ladder of high society. Becky is the original Material Girl--she’s 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 achieved 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’s performance steals the show). Matilda is wooed and wowed, inviting Becky to London to work for her. This is where Becky does her best damage. Upon her arrival, she manages to tame her future husband, Rawdon Crawley (James Purefoy) and her future benefactor the Marquees 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 Thackeray’s novel. Here Nair broadens her role, creating a powerful woman who’s 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’ career is definitely on a roll. His role in this film and his performance in “Danny Deckchair” have 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 secretly plots and schemes. Jim Broadbent is terrifying as George’s powerful father. It’s 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.

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 can convey 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.

Despite the film’s spicy richness, Vanity Fair has some flaws. Mira Nair’s film suffers from two main problems: First, Becky’s character is toned down considerably from the Becky of Thackeray’s novel. Her ruthlessness has been tempered by a wide-eyed wonderment and softer characterization. Witherspoon is terrific in the film, but her performance might have been better had she been allowed to dig beneath the surface and flesh out the darkness and deceptiveness that Thackeray intended.

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--primarily because Nair’s adaptation lacks the finesse and cohesion needed for a production 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 slow in places, but the performances, particularly by Witherspoon and Purefoy, give the film enough weight that you won’t really mind. This is a well crafted filmmaking at its finest.


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