Judge Jesse Ataide then saw in his dream "that town that is vanity, and at that town there is a fair kept called Vanity Fair." He decided to indulge, and had a blast.
"They will bully you, and snub you, and patronize you. But that is what
you want, I suppose."
How does a filmmaker approach a classic like Vanity Fair, William Makepeace Thackeray's 900-page magnum opus detailing the rise and fall of the inimitable Becky Sharp? In the first film adaptation of the book in over 65 years, director Mira Nair (Monsoon Wedding) subtly updates Thackeray's Victorian social critique by playing up the feminist aspects of the story and giving the visuals a distinctive Indian flavor. This isn't your reverent Masterpiece Theatre adaptation, but actually a very pointed attempt to find the contemporary relevance in a towering cultural icon.
Facts of the Case
Reese Witherspoon (Legally Blonde) is Becky Sharp, a bright and spunky girl who seems to possess it all: beauty, intelligence, education, and a devastating charm that has men falling all over themselves to get close to her. As she sees it, only two things stand in the way of her personal happiness: social status (of which she has none) and money (of which she has even less). Not content to leave her future to the whims of fate, she takes matters into her own hand, marrying a handsome and titled (but alas, penniless) nobleman (James Purefoy, Resident Evil), before capturing the devious eye of a fabulously wealthy Marquess (Gabriel Byrne, Miller's Crossing).
So just how far will Becky go to achieve the ever-increasing loftiness of her goals?
Even if one ultimately doesn't care for the finished project (and many haven't), one has to admire the enthusiasm and skill with which Nair & Co. take on the daunting project of trying to convince mainstream audiences that this masterpiece of Victorian literature holds some kind of contemporary relevance underneath its antique patina. Nair tries to accomplish this in two ways—by turning the character of Becky Sharp into a proto-feminist, and by imbuing her vision of Victorian England with the colors, patterns, and textures of her native India (which at that time was one of England's largest and most profitable colonies). Though one of these approaches ends up being more successful than the other, together they make this version of Vanity Fair a very exotic, distinctive, and fascinating (if flawed) reworking of Thackeray's classic novel.
This transformation brings up the question of how much of a responsibility screen adaptations have towards their source material. By giving the film feminist overtones, Nair has given the "Novel Without a Hero" (which is part of the book's full title) a very clear protagonist, which substantially changes the dynamics of the story. This also means that the novel's original intent—a scathing critique of upper-class Victorian lifestyles—has been displaced by an emphasis on Becky, a wily but charming young woman who is not "merely a social climber, but a mountaineer," as one critical character comments. The Becky Sharp in Thackeray's novel is definitely not the Becky Sharp in Nair's film—while the author never intended for his character to be very likable, the filmmaker makes sure viewers, along with many of the film's male characters, find this Victorian Tracy Flick (star Reese Witherspoon's character in Election) absolutely irresistible. Perhaps this trivializes Thackeray's original purpose, but to be fair, this newly-created narrative thrust does lend the film many of its best moments.
By turning Becky Sharp into an unintentional feminist heroine, Nair and Oscar-winning screenwriter Julian Fellowes have transformed Vanity Fair into a star vehicle tailored perfectly to fit Reese Witherspoon's talents as a light dramatic/comedic actress. Vanity Fair, for all its period finery, follows in the footsteps of Witherspoon's previous hits, such as Pleasantville, Election and Legally Blonde, in allowing Witherspoon to play a shrewd young woman who masks her intelligence behind her bubbly personality, sparkling wit, feigned naïvetée, and occasional child-like tantrums. These are the roles in which Witherspoon excels and that have made her a major Hollywood star; it makes sense that this film, for better or worse, would attempt to capitalize on all of the qualities that make her appealing as an actress in the first place.
Now, after scrutinizing the things that Vanity Fair perhaps gets wrong, it's time to turn our attention to the many, many things the film does right, which seem to be overlooked by most critics in the clamor to condemn the film on the merits of what it does not even aspire to be.
On a technical level, Vanity Fair was virtually unmatched in cinemas last year. Nair has made it well-known in both magazine interviews and the supplementary material provided on this DVD that her love for classic English literature began in childhood. Her passion and deep respect for the material is obvious, even if her vision is vastly different than a scholar or purist's would be. For Nair makes the decision to blend the fantastic balls and exquisite social graces of past eras with the colors, rhythms and sensibilities of her Indian heritage. What could have been executed as a handsome but conventional costume drama instead bursts with unexpected golds, reds, greens, and peacock blues, brightly coloring a world filled with lustrous pearls, rich velvets and billowing peacock feathers. Nair manages to visually fuse together the India of her birth with the Western world she has adopted as her home in adulthood, and the results are as historically subversive as they are spectacular. If the Oscars were not just a huge popularity contest, Vanity Fair would have received a handful of nominations in the technical categories, no questions asked.
But beautiful costumes and luxurious sets do not a good movie make. Thankfully, Vanity Fair is filled with strong performances and memorable supporting characters. In the central role of Becky Sharp, Reese Witherspoon is at her best, with her intelligence, obvious charm and delicate beauty on full display. Likewise, James Purefoy is perfectly cast as the loving and good-natured husband whom Becky sacrifices to her desire for money and social status.
Supporting them is a multitude of actors whose names read as a kind of Who's Who of current English cinema. Not only do Gabriel Byrne, Geraldine McEwan (The Magdalene Sisters), Jim Broadbent (Iris), Jonathan Rhys-Meyers (Bend it Like Beckham), and Romola Garai (I Capture the Castle) appear in substantial roles, but the ever-reliable Bob Hoskins (Mona Lisa) and Eileen Atkins (Gosford Park) have a ball with their eccentric characters. Rhys Ifans, known primarily for his outlandish performances in films like Notting Hill and Danny Deckchair, turns in the most subtle work in the film as the spurned Dobbin. The ensemble work of this huge group of talented actors turns Vanity Fair into a pseudo-comedy of manners that gives the film much of its sparkle and energy.
The widescreen version of Vanity Fair is presented in 2:35:1 anamorphic widescreen, which does a good overall job of capturing the astounding visuals of this film. For the most part the image is sharp and well-defined, with defects (slight discoloration, blurriness and pixelation) appearing rarely during the 141 minute running time. The audio is of comparable quality—the Dolby Digital 5.1 mix is competent, with some occasional use of the surrounds. Overall, the image and audio quality does this film justice, though both could use slight improvements. Viewers also have the option of French and Spanish subtitles or English captions for the hearing impaired, as well as a rather decent French dub for those so inclined. (They couldn't have found a more different voice to dub Witherspoon's part, however.)
As for the extras—a director's commentary, two featurettes ("Welcome to Vanity Fair" and "The Women Behind Vanity Fair"), as well as alternate and deleted scenes, are provided. The musical cadence of Nair's voice makes the commentary a treat to listen to, and the information and perspective she provides enhances one's appreciation for the film even more. The two featurettes are fun but slight, with Nair, Witherspoon, and other contributors mostly commenting on the contemporary relevance of the story. The seven deleted scenes include an alternate opening (which is just as ravishing as the one that appears in the finished film), several deleted scenes, extensions of several scenes that appear in the film, and an alternate ending, which would have changed the entire tone of the film, and left the film on a depressing note instead of the celebratory one it ended up with.
Any semi-aware movie watcher should be able to discern quite easily if Vanity Fair is their cup of tea or not. Once literary enthusiasts can get past the changes made to Thackeray's original story they should find themselves amply rewarded with this film: a lavish, beautifully crafted, and creative interpretation of a literary landmark that all too often simply gathers dust on forgotten library shelves.
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• Director's Commentary
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