Vanity Fair (2004)

MIRA NAIR

Bil’s rating (out of 5):   BBB

United Kingdom/USA, 2004.  Focus Features, Tempesta Films, Granada Film Productions, Inside Track Films, Mirabai Films, Cine Mosaic.  Screenplay by , , , based on the novel by .  Cinematography by .  Produced by , , .  Music by .  Production Design by .  Costume Design by .  Film Editing by .  

Becky Sharp (Reese Witherspoon), the orphan child of artists who has no name or fortune, leaves the boarding school where she has worked for her education and enters the world armed with nothing but charm and ambition. Her best friend Amelia () has position and is engaged since childhood to a handsome soldier () with whom she is madly in love. Becky becomes the governess to an eccentric aristocrat (Bob Hoskins) and causes a furor wherever she goes, before long using her wiles to make her life as upwardly mobile as possible. Unfortunately, her sins come back to haunt her, while Amelia suffers reversals of fortune that can only be blamed on a higher power. Set against the Napoleonic wars, this adaptation of William Makepeace Thackeray’s deliciously satirical novel is faithful to the plot of the original text and manages to compress the large work into a zippy 140-minute running time. Mira Nair fleshes out all the visual possibilities of the period, filling each scene with as much vivacious colour and sound as humanly possible, without ever masking the joys of the witty dialogue or the various intricacies of the character. Without Thackeray’s detached, humorous narration, however, the film suffers from a lack of context; the novel concerned itself with the journey of its characters, but it was more about societal observation than dramatic satisfaction, and the lack of commentary leaves a plot that is simply not interesting enough on its own. In no small part does the blame fall on the terrible casting at its centre: putting a Yank in a classic British role might have worked for Emma Woodhouse and Bridget Jones, but Witherspoon is light years removed from the level of chameleon abilities that could make her a convincing Becky. Poor accent work aside, she can’t pull off old-world wisdom or the character’s clever instincts, making the audience wonder why she’s so popular in the first place (the novel’s lengthy descriptions of her popularity, and simultaneous notoriety, have mostly been excised here, and with them go the very heart of the story). For all of its flaws, however, it is never boring, and it resolves quite satisfactorily. Hoskins and as his cantankerous sister are scene stealers.

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