Vanity Fair

September, 2004, Drama

The British have a long standing knack for social snobbery--and a corresponding skill in eviscerating it. 19th century authors like Dickens, Trollope, Austen & Bronte demonstrated an absorption with rank and status often accompanied by a peculiarly English combination of attraction and revulsion to its manifestations, making their heroines attractively vulnerable and their cads somehow more fascinating. Because of the degree of detail required in presenting examples of such lineage, manners, breeding and fealty to social codes, the novel's capacious mode works best as a vehicle for presenting this type of material, rather than the dialogue of a screenplay and its accompanying images on a theatre screen.  But every so often the right combination of script, production values, directing acuity and acting skills can transform a complex literary work into an unforgettable movie. Such was the case with director Ang Lee's sumptuous version of Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility, with its Oscar winning screenplay by actress Emma Thompson. (Even Americans occasionally get Brits and their social structures right, as Robert Altman so amply demonstrated three years ago with Gosford Park. Might a director born and raised in India and possessing an enviable track record in films depicting the vagaries of social class there perform similar magic with Thackery's famously scandalous Vanity Fair?

At 37, director Mira Nair has already enjoyed a career that would make even the most jaded cineophile envious; with a score of movies already on her resume and a new project in hand, Ms. Nair has provided audiences with a shattering examination of street life in her native India, (Salaam Bombay), a penetrating look at inter-racial romance in the American south, (Mississippi Masala) and a sharply observed study of Cuban immigrants in Miami, (The Perez Family). From intimate character studies, (Hysterical Blindness) to lavish costume romances, (Monsoon Wedding) she consistently delivers the goods. What better choice to tackle Thackery's richly detailed examination of Ms. Becky Sharp, social climber extraordinaire?

At the periphery, Ms. Nair provides audiences with a grand-slam; the locations, costuming, sets, minor characters and gigantic cast all conspire to recreate Thackery's London in brilliant detail. Bob Hoskins and Eileen Atkins, (as Sir Pitt Crawley and his half-sister Miss Matilda Crawley) embody the casually pretentious style of those born to privilege, while Jim Broadbent's grasping and opinionated merchant Mr.Osborne is pitch perfect and as immediately detestable as any Enron-era C.E.O. Nair's attention to every aspect of the physical elements of this production are striking; from hairdos to retractable carriage steps, stunningly-hued ball gowns to military epilates--it's all here, allowing the  horse dung in the streets to emerge as inevitably and odiously as the snobbery in the drawing rooms. Yet for all this carefully constructed, dazzling ambiance, the core of Vanity Fair suffers from a crucial shortcoming--the oddly calibrated, one-dimensional performances of the half-dozen actors portraying six characters central to Thackery's plot.  

Reese Witherspoon's Becky Sharpe is the principal disappointment; as an orphan on the make in society, she's plucky instead of attractively bitchy, aspiring rather than conniving. Whether that's a function of screenwriters Matthew Fault and Julian Fellows' ambivalence about the character or the director's unwillingness to allow Ms. Witherspoon to portray Becky unsympathetically, the result is the same; after more than 2 and a quarter hours of screen time, Witherspoon's Becky emerges a bit like the heroine she provided in her Legally Blonde films, sporting a Carmen Miranda hairdo and a coy touch of décolleté to indicate we're in a different century. Abandoning Thackery's pitiless examination of his main character makes Becky's fall from social prominence as ultimately uninteresting as her inexplicable rise had been. Where's the ruthless self-absorption of Witherspoon's student body candidate in Election? The actress has the talent to go the distance as a calculating schemer who's not above using her charms in a horizontal manner to ascend in London's society, but none of that charming killer instinct is provided here and the film suffers as a result.

As Rawdon Crawley, Becky's handsome but feckless solider-husband, James Purefoy, (A Knight's Tale) must be attractive enough to seduce her, but sufficiently off-putting in his dissolute sloth to excuse her subsequent infidelity. Unfortunately, the actor's utilization of a permanent smirk, (apparently employed as indication of attractive upper-class indolence) simply isn't sufficient character development to warrant either his wife’s initial attraction or his subsequent role as a "beard" for her more scandalous behavior. Even death in military-bureaucratic exile isn't sufficient punishment for Purefoy's bland performance.

Romola Garai, (Nicholas Nickelby) plays Becky's best friend Amelia Sedley, a merchant's daughter destined to fall in love with Jonathan Rhys-Meyers' feline, snobbish cad, George Osborne. While Garai physically conveys the vulnerability of a hopeless romantic, she doesn't compliment those perfectly utilized good looks with a single, credibly-delivered line. Marriage, childbirth, poverty and estrangement from her son all unfold with ample clarity in the storyline but produce virtually no impact on the actress’s emotions. Husband George, on the other hand, is all sneer and no substance, a mere prop to keep the action flowing in its appropriately disastrous direction.

Rhys Ifans, the deliciously scruffy roommate to Hugh Grant in Notting Hill, really disappoints here as William Dobbin, the quiet tower-of-strength who pines so consistently and unsuccessfully for Amelia's affections. Like Alan Rickman's Colonel Brandon in Sense and Sensibility, Dobbins' long-suffering needs to engage the audience with its dignified stoicism; instead, Ifans merely mopes, providing the audience with no good reason for chiding the obtuse Amelia when she first misinterprets and then rejects his affections. Finally, there is Tim Preece, as Amelia's rotund brother Horrocks; his fortunately brief appearances, while central to the storyline's ultimate conclusion, never rise above the level of simplistic caricature.

Since Thackery's novel revolves so thoroughly around Becky and the lives of her inner circle, the inability of these crucial members of the cast to rise to the superb level of the production's surroundings prevents Vanity from becoming all it might have been. But see it anyway, if for no other reason than to enjoy the director's magnificent recreation of an era which endlessly fascinates so many Americans.

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