It’s worth investing in the DVD of Mira Nair’s adaptation of Thackery’s VANITY FAIR just to be able to immerse oneself again in the lush visual feast that it offers. There’s also Reese Witherspoon’s passionate, intelligent performance as Becky Sharpe that marks a milestone in her career. To see her firmly leave behind the image and the adorable Barbie doll roles and take on one of such complexity that hearkens back to her serious work in MAN IN THE MOON and FREEWAY is to be reminded how much promise this actress has always possessed. It also makes one grateful that she found such a rich part to showcase her skills.
When you hear Mira Nair describing the planning that went into just the opening credits of this epic adaptation you get a sense of just how massive an undertaking it was for her. The film itself though uneven, is never less than engrossing. Engrossing is also the word that describes Nair’s commentary track, as well as entertaining and, sometimes, just a little bawdy. Nair’s insights into the novel are as sharp as her filmmaking instincts. Seeing the deleted scenes made me regret that economics and business conventions couldn’t have allowed the filmmaker to make a mini-series out of the novel, which would have helped the sometimes jarring changes in tone of the theatrical release, and would have allowed more of the quiet moments that expand the character studies the story offered and that are as important as any of the spectacles. Where else to discover the inherent eroticism of a carriage ride or how Regency Bath is like modern Bombay?
Other extras include “Welcome to Vanity Fair”, which is a making-of exercise with the usual praise lavished on everyone by everyone else, but is notable for providing the context of the story, and the parallels noted between Becky Sharpe and Madonna and Scarlet O’Hara. Make of them what you will. The featurette The Women of Vanity Fair explores the contemporary issues the film raises as well as the feminist take on Becky by the predominantly female production staff. There is also some insight into Nair’s particular affinity for Thackery, both born in India, and her approach to life in general that is profoundly reflected in her work.
Mira Nair’s VANITY FAIR is a luscious film that overcomes its shortcomings with the same cracking smarts and aplomb as its heroine overcomes the curves that life throws at her. It’s a word that deserves multiple viewings, and a great deal of respect.