Directed by Mira Nair. Starring Reese Witherspoon, James Purefoy, Romola Garai, Eileen Atkins, Jim Broadbent, Gabriel Byrne, Bob Hoskins, Rhys Ifans, Jonathan Rhys-Meyers. (2004, PG-13, 137 min.)
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Sept. 3, 2004
Mira Nair's adaptation (with a script by Gosford Park screenwriter Julian Fellowes) of William Makepeace Thackeray's 19th-century satiric novel grafts 21st-century attitudes and behaviors onto Thackeray's sprawling tome about post-Enlightenment-era social climbing. It makes for an odd coupling: Instead of the coldly calculating heroine of the novel and her requisite downfall, Nair's Becky Sharp (Witherspoon) seems more like a sharp cookie who's able to roll with the punches, more Elle Woods (of Legally Blonde fame) than epic heroine. The problem lies not with the casting: Witherspoon is fine in the role, her English accent acceptable, and her appearance in nearly every scene a welcome sight. This film adaptation of Vanity Fair (Hollywood has made several, the most famous being the 1935 version, starring Miriam Hopkins, which is remembered more for its historical significance as the first completely Technicolor movie than for its dramatic significance) owes a great deal to the model of Gone With the Wind and its heroine Scarlett O'Hara: This Becky Sharp shares Scarlett's willfulness and self-reliance, and one can picture much of the dialogue coming from the mouth of Margaret Mitchell's Civil War heroine more than Thackeray's Napoleonic-era social climber. Nair, the director of Monsoon Wedding, also insinuates more India-set sequences than in any previous version, including Thackeray's, perhaps as her personal stamp on the story. But this adds to the movie's overall choppiness. Granted, Vanity Fair is an oversized novel, and trimming it to a manageable movie length requires choices and excisions. Nair's movie has a very episodic feel, partly the result of this narrative editing, yet more could have been done to depict the span of the story. Although the story occurs over the course of 30 years, none of the characters seems to age onscreen, and sometimes the glimpses are so sporadic that it becomes difficult to follow the movie's time frame. Vanity Fair is lovely to look at: It is the most colorful historical epic to come around in a while. And the performances are good: In addition to Witherspoon, Atkins and Hoskins are both standouts. Yet this movie has precious little satirical edge. What it needs is more emphasis on the "vanity" and less on the "fair."