- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 31, 2004

At its most impressive, William Makepeace Thackeray’s novel “Vanity Fair,” which transformed the author’s career in 1848, seems an almost chapter-by-chapter tour de force. Known as a humorist in periodicals such as Punch during the decade that preceded the book’s publication, Thackeray set a blithely scathing tone while introducing a famously opportunistic, unscrupulous heroine: Becky Sharp, intent on methodically transcending a bohemian childhood and a galling dependence as a young governess unfashionably stranded in the Hampshire countryside.

While trusting the manipulative magnetism of Becky, a prototype for best-selling schemers and social climbers for the past 150 years, Thackeray also expanded the scope of his social panorama to include the Waterloo campaign in 1815 and portraits of the Regency society that Becky endeavors to charm or outwit after trading Paris for London as her base of operations in the aftermath of the Napoleonic wars.

Subtitled “A Novel Without a Hero,” the book is not as resolutely misanthropic as it often sounds. Thackeray is a writer of fluctuations and inconsistencies. He shifts moods, emphases and perspectives frequently enough to betray considerable ambivalence about seeking advantage in a society that teems with privilege and corruption.

The lapses allow adapters a certain latitude. Distilling “Vanity Fair” with complete fidelity and assurance on stage or screen may be impossible. You can reflect the author accurately when he sounds mocking and unforgiving or heartsick and bathetic. The principal collaborators in the new movie version that opens today, director Mira Nair and leading lady Reese Witherspoon, select from the novel in ways that suit their cleverly modern and feminist temperaments.

Miss Witherspoon had her best precocious role as a modern reincarnation of Becky Sharp: the similarly named Tracy Flick, a Nebraska high school girl seething with ambition and malice in “Election.” She slips confidently into period costume and English accent, and this role may prove as flattering a career move for her as “Emma” did for Gwyneth Paltrow in 1996.

The catch, of course, is that Becky is not remotely as decent or sympathetic a protagonist as Emma. To put it bluntly, the would-be fashionable lady is a tramp.

Actress and director are effectively stimulated by Becky’s passionate and cutthroat attributes, clearly preferred to the passivity of her sweet-natured schoolmate Amelia Sedley, a thankless role for Romola Garai. However, they aren’t prepared to confront as much indecency as the original author.

You can relish the ambivalence at its most diverting in the sequences about Becky’s emergence as a plaything for the jaded aristocrat Lord Steyne (Gabriel Byrne). The filmmakers are reluctant to judge Becky harshly. Thackeray didn’t hesitate, but he had a larger propriety stake in Becky’s immorality.

The potential revisionist benefits of entrusting an English subject to an Indian-born filmmaker are easier to savor in “Vanity Fair” than they were in “Elizabeth” or “Four Feathers,” both directed by Shekhar Kapur. Miss Nair isn’t fixated on sinister or stilted impressions, and she seems to enjoy better rapport with a versatile cast.

One expects vivid impersonations from such familiar performers as Eileen Atkins, Bob Hoskins, Jim Broadbent and Geraldine McEwen. It’s a pleasant surprise to find that the actors cast as consorts to Becky and Amelia — James Purefoy as Rawdon Crawley and Jonathan Rhys Meyers as George Osborne, respectively — are also persuasive embodiments, a distinctively gallant and touching one in the case of Mr. Purefoy.

Miss Nair clearly is out of her element when attempting to evoke the Battle of Waterloo by visualizing the battlefield only after the battle has been fought. The effect is picturesque in the worst way. If it’s impossible to simulate the firsthand impressions of soldiers such as Crawley, Osborne and Rhys Ifans’ William Dobbin, it would be preferable to hear accounts from the survivors second hand. The resources lavished on Waterloo corpse arrangement might have been better spent on a second dance number at the Steyne mansion.


TITLE: “Vanity Fair”

RATING: PG-13 (Occasional profanity and sexual vulgarity in a 19th-century setting, images of war casualties, fleeting nudity)

CREDITS: Directed by Mira Nair. Screenplay by Matthew Faulk, Mark Skeet and Julian Fellowes, based on the novel by William Makepeace Thackeray. Cinematography by Declan Quinn. Production design by Maria Djurkovic. Costume design by Jenny Shircore. Music by Mychael Danna.

RUNNING TIME: 140 minutes


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