Becky Sharp (Reese Witherspoon, "Legally Blonde 2, Red, White and Blonde") and Amelia Sedley (Romola Garai, "Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights") leave Miss Pinkerton's School for Girls as an orphan and a cosseted young woman of means, but the best friends will see their fortunes reversed in "Vanity Fair."
You can take the director out of India, but...Mira Nair gives William Makepeace Thackeray's Napoleonic War era satire the Bollywood treatment with a good dose of "Gone With the Wind" thrown in for good measure. While the film looks gorgeous and Reese Witherspoon is quite fetching as the gold digging Becky, the film demands too many abrupt about-faces for characters who are given episodic screen time to make epic evolutions.
Becky is introduced as a scruffy urchin putting on a marionette show that foreshadows her own future. The young girl assures her own downfall when she demands ten guineas for her father's portrait of her deceased mother, her own sentimentality priced right. The man who buys the painting will meet Becky much later in life and repeat the transaction on a much grander scale.
Nair and her screenwriters, Matthew Faulk and "Gosford Park's" Julian Fellowes, in adapting a book subtitled 'a novel without a hero,' warm their heroine's cold heart, making her subsequent downfall seem rather harsh. Also muddled is the character of George Osborne (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, sinking back to villainy after his lovely good guy turn in "Bend It Like Beckham"), whose motivations for marrying Amelia are botched by the filmmakers - is it Dobbin's (an affecting Rhys Ifans, "Danny Deckchair") impassioned cry for decency, a rebellious act against his father or a true change of heart? The latter explanation is immediately dashed by his despicable behavior towards his pregnant wife and poor Romola Garai is left playing an Amelia who is an unpleasant mix of stupidity, loyalty and selfishness. Particularly affected by the film's jumps in time is the character of Rawdon Crawley (played by "Resident Evil's" James Purefoy in perhaps the film's best performance), whose exit from Becky's life is sudden when weighed against all that has come before it (Nair's staging of this scene simply screams of Rhett Butler's famous departure, just as the flight from Brussels strongly smacks of the fleeing of Atlanta. Later, Rawdon's sister-in-law becomes his Melanie). "Vanity Fair's" conclusion is sure to offend purists and begins to reek of its director's determination to stamp her heritage upon her film wherever possible.
Nevertheless, "Vanity Fair" is an entertaining enough bauble, with its lush art direction (Sam Stokes and Lucinda Thomson) and sumptuous costumes (Beatrix Aruna Pasztor, "In the Cut"). A huge cast of name actors like Gabriel Byrne ("Spider"), Bob Hoskins ("Maid In Manhattan"), Geraldine McEwan ("The Magdalene Sisters") and the ubiquitous Jim Broadbent, "Around the World in 80 Days") dress up the cast with their presences, but only "Cold Mountain's Eileen Atkins scores strongly as the controlling Aunt Tilly.
Director Mira Nair is best known for smaller, more personal films such as “Salaam Bombay” and “Mississippi Masala” but made her first foray into large-scale picture making with her own Bollywood film, “Monsoon Wedding.” Now, she takes on not just a large cast and multiple stories, Nair tackles period piece filmmaking, too, with “Vanity Fair.”
Based on the William Makepeace Thackery novel (adapted by Matthew Faulk, Mark Skeet and Julian Fellowes), the
film tells the story of Becky Sharp (Reese Witherspoon), the daughter of a talented but weak artist who leaves the girl to fend for herself at a young age. But, Becky is an intelligent and ambitious young woman who, through her hard won education and
brains, lands a job as the governess for a minor aristocrat, Sir Pitt (Bob Hoskins). From there, the story spans two decades and involves the lives of a score of players from the charismatic Rawdon Crawley (James Purefoy) to the staunchly loyal Captain Dobbin (Rhys Ifans). Fans of the Thackery book will be at ease with the film – maybe not liking the adaptation,
but at ease, anyway.
I am not familiar with the original Thackery story but I am with the 1935 adaptation, “Becky Sharp,” by director Rouben Mamoulian, starring Miriam Hopkins in the title role. That film is a landmark and memorable not for its acting or production but for it being the first released in three-color Technicolor. Mira Nair’s take on the material is uneven and sometime wooden
but, in the end, entertaining.
The one thing that Nair really succeeds with in “Vanity Fair” is the showcasing of Reese Witherspoon in a period British drama. The actress has become a sentimental favorite for many due to her comedy roles in “Election” and the “Legally Blond” franchise – you may not like the “LB” movies but you cannot deny the likable exuberance of Witherspoon. She is called upon to anchor a complex, large production effort that spans many years and many lives. Reese, as Becky, is a social climber (or, as one character calls her, “a mountaineer”) who takes every risk to get what she wants, win or lose. Throughout the film, Becky remains a sympathetic character, probably because of the working class appeal she has. Witherspoon eases into
the British accent and, after noting it initially, became thoroughly integrated with the natives.
The supporting cast is an embarrassment of riches with Purefoy getting great empathy as Rawdon Crawley, the
dashing cavalry officer who captures Becky’s heart. Or, at least, one of a number of men who capture Becky’s heart through the course of “Vanity Fair.” Eileen Atkins is excellent as Crawley’s wealthy, spinster Aunt Matilda who takes Becky under her wing despite the protestations of her jealous family. Other notables include Hoskins as a slovenly squire who Becky turns from a sow’s ear into a silk purse, at least outwardly. Jim Broadbent is solid as the merchant father to George (Jonathan Rhys-Myers), the selfish, handsome dandy who unknowingly holds the heart of Amelia (Romola Garai), Becky’s only and best friend. Gabriel Byrne is coldly analytical as the Becky’s calculating benefactor, Marquis of Steyne.
“Vanity Fair” is really an elaborate soap opera where love is either misunderstood or used like a cudgel. As such, this adaptation has a great deal to look at, visually and artistically, and many story threads to follow. It holds your attention with all its machinations but, in the end, leaves you with an uncaring attitude. (And, with additional respect for Witherspoon.)
Technically, you are hard pressed to find flaws. Lensing, by veteran cinematographer and long time Nair collaborator Declan Quinn, is lushly delivered as it captures the broad palette of colors and helps raise the entertainment value of an inappropriate Hindu belly dance. This scene, where Becky dances a seven-veils kind of number that is jarringly out of place but, still, looks good. Beatrix Aruna Pasztor tackles “Vanity Fair’s” complex costuming needs and provides a rich look to the upper crust British society, using colors to beautiful effect. Maria Djurkovic handles the time-spanning production design, from British drawing room to Napoleonic battlefield, expertly.
There is one major flaw, from a production standpoint, now that I think about it. While we follow the adult Becky over a span of two decades, nobody shows any signs of aging. At a time when a long, happy life only extended into one’s forties, everyone looks surprisingly youthful to the end. Must be that rejuvenating British weather we always hear about. Oh,
yeah, I also had a problem with the Bollywood number at the end of the film - another out-of-place detractor.
Mira Nair has bitten off a big piece with this epic scale period drama and sometimes succeeds. The two-plus hour run time is not a problem, but the film fades quickly after you leave the theater. I continue to like Witherspoon and have increased respect for the talented actress. “Vanity Fair” is like flavored popcorn – tastier than regular popcorn but it is still
popcorn, nonetheless. I give it a B-.
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