Director : Mira Nair
Screenplay : Matthew Faulk, Julian Fellows, & Mark Skeet (based on the novel by William Makepeace Thackery)
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2004
Stars : Reese Witherspoon (Becky Sharp), Romola Garai (Amelia Sedley), Gabriel Byrne (The Marquess of Steyne), James Purefoy (Rawdon Crawley), Eileen Atkins (Miss Matilda Crawley), Bob Hoskins (Sir Pitt Crawley), Douglas Hodge (Pitt Crawley), Meg Wynn Owen (Lady Crawley), Rhys Ifans (William Dobbin), Jonathan Rhys Meyers (George Osborne), Tony Maudsley (Joseph Sedley), Deborah Findlay (Mrs. Sedley), John Franklyn-Robbins (Mr. Sedley),
In the last few years, Reese Witherspoon has come to embody the essence of stylish feminine pluck. In her roles in the two Legally Blonde movies and Sweet Home Alabama, she played intelligent, determined young women who also happened to be really cute and have great fashion sense. This is what we've come to expect from her, and it's exactly what she brings to the role of Becky Sharp, the anti-heroine of William Makepeace Thackery's scalding 19th-century social satire Vanity Fair.
Unfortunately, while Witherspoon's cinematic persona makes Becky immediately modern and imminently watchable, it robs the story of some of its sharper edges, turning Thackery's greedy, avarice-ridden social climber into an updated rags-to-riches romantic fantasy. The difference between the film and the novel can be neatly summarized by their respective taglines: The movie poster promises that "a heroine will rise," whereas the novel's title pages declares that it is "A novel without a hero."
Thackery's spawling, sometimes rambling 800-page epic has been neatly pared down by screenwriters Matthew Faulk, Julian Fellows, and Mark Skeet, who keep the basic plot points and major characters, but allow director Mira Nair (Monsoon Wedding) to give it her own stamp. The story follows the social rise of Becky Sharp, who starts as an orphan and, through the only means available to her-marriage-works her way into the upper crust of British society.
Her first brush with the higher rungs of the social ladder is when she goes to work as a governess for the Crawley family, which is headed by the scruffy Sir Pitt Crawley (Bob Hoskins), but is truly lorded over by the no-nonsense matriarchal aunt, Miss Matilda Crawley (Eileen Atkins at her scenery-chewing best). Becky enters the family by marrying Pitt's gambler/soldier son Rawdon (James Purefoy). Unfortunately, Matilda, despite singing Becky's praises, doesn't want a member of her family marrying a mere governess, so Rawdon is cut out of the will. He and Becky manage to scrape by on their own, making ends meet in London, until Becky meets up with their neighbor, the extremely wealthy and extremely bored Marquess of Steyne (Gabriel Byrne). This is the point at which Becky truly begins to sell herself for upward mobility, leaving her husband in the dust as she falls deeper and deeper into Steyne's web.
Meanwhile, Becky's story is inversely paralleled by her friend Amelia Sedley (Romola Garai), who starts off the heiress to a wealthy family and winds up poor. Her family falls deep into debt, and when she marries the arrogant George Osborne (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), he is disowned by his scheming father (Jim Broadbent), in whose debt the Sedleys are wallowing. George is a self-absorbed prick who married Amelia not for love, but simply to spite his father out of stubbornness. Amelia, however, is too stubborn herself (or, more probably, stupid) to see what a cad he really is, even as George's utterly decent friend, William Dobbin (Rhys Ifans), pines away for her.
That is really just the tip of the narrative iceberg, and Mira Nair should be given due credit for not only keeping the audience involved with more than a dozen main characters, but also giving the film a brisk, lively pace that so often escapes adaptations of weighty Victorian novels (she had already evidenced this skill quite admirably in Monsoon Wedding). Nair, who was born in India and educated at Harvard, takes every opportunity to infuse the very British story with every bit of colonized Indian ethnic color that is so often relegated to the corners, all of which is beautifully rendered by Declan Quinn's ravishing cinematography.
One could argue that Nair overdoes it a bit, particularly in an amusingly salacious sequence in which Becky metaphorically prostitutes herself by taking the lead in a scandalous, skin-baring belly-dance for Steyne's amusement. However, the cultural color Nair brings to the story not only gives it a visual boost, but also works as an effective, if obvious, critique of British colonialism, as virtually everything in the film of any genuine beauty is imported. The British costumes are certainly regal and elegant, but they smack of social rigidity. The dance sequence, which many will see as simply superfluous, is actually a crucial moment in which Becky is allowed to emerge from beneath the heavy Victorian garments demanded by British high society and fully engage the twin poles of her social and sexual desires. It's a moment of genuine liberation that supplants even the film's happy ending.
Still, despite the film's successes in translating the familiarity of Vanity Fair to the screen in a way that feels at times fresh and even invigorating, we have to return to the problematic character of Becky Sharp, who embodies a host of contradictory characteristics that never quite work themselves out. Granted, this is part of the intent-Becky is too interesting a character to be pinned down with simply labels. Yet, the film tries to make up for her contrary actions by making her overly sympathetic. The satirical edge of Thackery's story is dulled by Becky's likability-Witherspoon's spunkiness immediately puts us on Becky's side, even when we should be questioning her motives and decisions. This gives us an easy form of identification, one that makes the film rush along like any good story should, but it also robs it of the complexity that has made Thackery's novel an enduring classic.
Copyright ©2004 James Kendrick
All images copyright ©2004 Focus Features