Vanity Fair

written by Matthew Faulk and Julian Fellowes from the novel by William Thackeray

directed by Mira Nair

starrting Reese Witherspoon, Gabriel Byrne and James Purefoy


review by Stephen Notley

Climbing that ol' social pyramid can be a bitch, particularly during the 18-teens in the brief interregnum when Napolean licked his wounds at Elba Isle before emerging Lex Luthor-like to threaten Europe again. Man, lemme tell you, England was all a-turvy then, with lordship on the decline, money on the rise, destitute lords looking to hook up with some cash, rich commonors hoping to buy respect. You'd hook your wagon to some star and it'd fly right into the ditch.

It's in these fun times in Vanity Fair we find Reese Witherspoon as governess-for-hire Becky Sharp, blessed with neither lordship nor money but aching to ascend on the strength of nothing more than her charm, wit and oppulent bosom. And so she does, circuituitously in a two-steps-forward one-step-back snakes-n'-ladders meander over a few different spots in the 1815 English social scheme.

There's quite a slew of characters in here, no doubt. We've got Becky's friend Amelia who takes Becky to meet the family: Amelia's father Sir Pitt the elder, a crumbling lord with bad hair played by Bob Hoskins, Amelia's half-brother Pitt Crawley, doofusy heir to the Pitt title, and Amelia's other half-brother Rawdon Crawley, suave soldier-about-town/gambler. Becky manages to ingratiate herself with Amelia's wealthy aunt Matilda, swapping naughty stories of elopement until Becky secretly marries Rawdon at which point Matilda suddenly remembers she's a conservative after all. Meanwhile Amelia's got her own stuff going on with another dashing soldier George Osborne (played by Jonathan Rhys-Meyers with the whiny snottiness you'd expect from, say, a Joaquim Phoenix) and his longsuffering soldier buddy Dobbin and then Napolean attacks and some characters get pregnant and then Gabriel Byrne shows up as a rich guy with an at-first-unstated-but-then-increasinlgy-explicitly-stated Robert Redford Indecent Proposal debts-for-humping scheme for Becky to consider in her eternal climb for the top, wherever that is.

It's a period piece, of course, beautifully filmed, sumptuous, loads of decolletage. Director Mira Nair (Kama Sutra: A Tale of Love, Mississippi Masala, Salaam Bombay!) clothes and shoots everything brilliantly, and her brief invocations of India are the stars of the show, including one darkened dance number Witherspoon actually pulls off. Witherspoon looks good as Becky and plenty of those other actors are worth seeing, but with all the plotlines and characters the movie gets a little bit lost in itself. Fans of the book admire Becky's uncompromising deviousness, but Witherspoon's Becky seems milder, somehow, or at least more of a conventional brave movie heroine, not so much a manipulater of events as a smart thinker on her feet. Novel Becky sees Rawdon as a rung; Witherspoon's Becky genuinely seems to love him. Nice, sure, very romantic, but without that edge of nastiness propelling things the film feels a bit wandery, and it's difficult to say what, if anything, the movie has to say about all this behavior. It feels like it should be a social indictment of some kind but at the end it comes across as just another romance in period dress, amusing but hardly compelling.

Home links reviews fanklub t-shirts books annotations archive