Vanity Fair
directed by Mira Nair
(Focus, 2004)

"Revenge may be wicked," says Becky Sharp in Vanity Fair, "but it's perfectly natural."

Same goes for jealousy, money-grabbing, snobbery, class consciousness, fear and a whole two-plus hours of unsavory but perfectly natural emotions in this 2004 version of William Makepeace Thackeray's serial novel of 1847-48.

Thackeray's portrait of middle- and upper-class England of the time was well informed by his own life: born in Calcutta to a father who worked for the East India Company and who died when Thackeray was young, much of an inheritance lost at the gambling tables, the separation of children from parents. All fitting, for the subtitle to Thackeray's novel Vanity Fair: A Novel Without a Hero.

This has always been a popular tale to adapt to the screen; there were about half a dozen film versions of this story of English society by the mid-1930s. The newest film version, directed by Mira Nair (Monsoon Wedding) is lush and exotic, even in its depiction of poverty and squalor.

And it stars Reese Witherspoon as Becky Sharp, a classic role of a woman who, because she has neither station nor money, uses what she does have: her charm, sometimes sincerely, but always with an eye toward what it will bring her.

The book, starkly "real" for its time, has morphed into a film with a Becky Sharp who, at least until the last quarter of the movie, is by and large likeable. That's not really the idea of the original Becky Sharp. And it comes about because of a variety of issues. Scrunching down a novel hundreds of pages long is just one of the problems.

And casting Witherspoon, though not really a problem, goes a long way toward that likeability factor. Because, no matter how scheming Becky gets (and Witherspoon does a wonderful schemer; see Election), Witherspoon also gives her a coy side that's aimed at the viewers as well as the men she's trying to win over.

Born to an impoverished painter who already has lost his French wife, Becky finds herself, after her father's death and her own "release" from finishing school, employed as a governess by a poor but titled family. She wins over the patriarch's wealthy sister, Matilda (a fabulously biting Eileen Atkins), and his younger son, Rawdon (James Purefoy).

But Matilda's amusement at inappropriate matches does not extend to her own family, and Rawdon is cut from her substantial will. That leaves Becky and Rawdon, a professional gambler, to take matters into their own hands.

And it's here that the two Beckys begin to diverge. Because Thackeray's Becky is cunning, she manipulates people into doing what is helpful for her own goal of moving into higher society. Nair and Witherspoon, though, have created a Becky whose actions are, for the most part, understood and explained away.

That removes a lot of the bite from Thackeray's commentary. The bitter cost of Becky's relationship with the Marquess of Stayne, her financial savior, is treated with more unblinking focus by Thackeray than it is by Nair.

It all makes this newest film version of Vanity Fair seem lost under the weight of its stunning scenes and glitter of the upper class.

- Rambles
written by Jen Kopf
published 19 March 2005

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