Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea. —Henry Fielding

07 September 2004

Review: Vanity Fair

Mira Nair's films include the Oscar-nominated Indian film Salaam Bombay!, which is a beautiful/gritty exploration of working-class people, especially women, in modern India.  A year or two ago she had a film out called Monsoon Wedding, which was sort-of a musical and very highly respected.  Her films also include Kama Sutra: a Tale of Love, a light-on-plot, high-on-visual-elements (including sex scenes) confection.  Nair has also been asked to direct the film version of HP5 aka Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.  Word is still out on whether she has accepted the offer.

Her new film is Vanity Fair, the first adaptation of William Makepeace Thackeray's novel of the same name to come out in something like half a century.  Like Nair's other films, this one is first and foremost a visual thing: the costumes are lavishly rendered and the makeup in the film would be interesting even without the film to help it along.  There are peacocks and elephants and macaws, and most numerous onscreen: stuffy white British people.  The film is set in Georgian England and centers around Becky Sharp (Reese Witherspoon), the daughter of a French chorus girl and a starving painter.  Vanity Fair chronicles Becky's slow, arduous climb into British high society and her much quicker free-fall out of it.

Witherspoon is perfect for the role for several reasons.  Her dialect is flawless, and though she is unmistakably American, this is an asset for ther character rather than a liability.  Becky never fits in at these soirées and various events she attends, and Nair doesn't have to do anything to tell us this.  Sometimes Becky is the star of the show, and sometimes she doesn't have a soul to talk to, but instead of us needing some kind of proof of this, we sense it on our own.  This girl is just not the same as those other people on the screen.

Before I go any further, I should say that I quite enjoyed myself at this film.  It has gotten fair to middling reviews around town, and no one I've spoken to has loved it, but it's actually a rather enjoyable piece of film, and as a study in Georgian class sensibilities it definitely has its value.  Eileen Atkins is very funny as Becky's benefactress early in the film, and Jim Broadbent gives an excellent performance in a role that should have been smaller.

The problem with the film is the script.  Julian Fellowes' adaptation of Thackeray's novel is a bit talky.  Fellowes also follows the story of Becky's friend Amelia (Romola Garai, who I hate) as a sub-plot, and she composes a good proportion of the film.  The trouble is that Amelia is not the least bit interesting, and has nowhere near the wit and grace of Becky.  Romola Garai is, not surprisingly, considerably uninteresting in the role.  I am not overstating this point.  The book is subtitled "A Novel Without a Hero," but the point of that would not seem to be that there are several protagonists.  Quite the contrary, Becky should have been Fellowes' focus from the get-go.  The entire subplot with Amelia is a distraction from what is going on in the novel.

Thackeray is trying to give us an anti-heroine with very questionable moral character.  He adds to this a society where a woman with these questionable morals can get ahead.  Fellowes tries to humanize the story (and the nobility) with this Amelia storyline and instead of accomplishing this it just gets in the way of what Thackeray is saying.

But the movie is good.  It is hardly ever boring, and chock-full of visual stimuli.  Witherspoon is engaging--not cruel enough for my taste--but I rarely get my heroines as cruel as I like them.  Broadbent and Atkins are both excellent in their supporting turns and James Purefoy is fair as Becky's longsuffering husband--if a little brooding.  Recommended.

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