Mira Nair’s telling of Thackery’s classic, VANITY FAIR, is a lush, sprawling, sensual film that totters unevenly under the weight of its own ambition. It’s an apt metaphor considering that its heroine, Becky Sharpe, has the same Achilles Heel. Blithely skipping through so many decades of necessity leads to a feeling of sketchiness in some details and characters.
The problem comes mostly from trying to cover 40 or so years in the life of Becky, a life that includes both the viciousness of the British upper crust and the Napoleonic Wars. She’s a smart, plucky, and fatally charming woman with looks, talent, but, alas, no pedigree, at least not the kind that counts in the early years of the 19th century. With an artist father and an opera singer mother, its mere luck that she ends up in a finishing school after being orphaned, though not merely to study, to scrub the floors, dust the schoolrooms, and otherwise serve out a term of unpaid labor. She does, however, strike up a friendship with one of the paying students, Amelia. Upon graduation, and on her way to a job as a governess, she strikes up a flirtation with Amelias brother, a slightly silly army officer on leave from his post in India. What seems like a promising match and a secure future falls apart with a word from Amelia’s socially conscious fiancé who brings home for Becky just what her station is life is in a time when upward mobility did not apply to penniless governesses. Naturally, Becky chooses to see this as more a spur than an obstacle.
The character of Becky Sharpe has become a byword for scheming, and it is to the credit of both Nair and Witherspoon that this rendering rarely strays from housing such raw calculation into a sympathetic character. Albeit, one with human weakness, as Becky puts it, revenge is not noble, but it is very human. And for Becky, climbing the dizzy heights of London society is the best revenge. Witherspoon’s Becky is tough as nails, and not above mockery, but blessed and cursed with a nasty habit of doing something noble when she least expects it. As it only right, the entire film revolves around Witherspoon, the other characters more or less blending into the background, mere props in Becky’s adventure. This is true even of Bob Hoskins as the bombastically barbarous nobleman who hires Becky as a governess to his unruly children, and Eileen Atkins, as his ultra-refined sister who, charmed by Beckys wicked sense of humor, spirits her away to London and her destiny. The other players, such as James Purefoy as Beckys handsome but luckless husband, Gabriel Byrne as the dark and mysterlous means to Beckys ends, are just so much window dressing for the film. Of note, though, is Nair’s casting against type of Rhys Ifans as the tragic and soulful embodiment of unrequited love. There is a distinct and heretofore unsuspected gravitas to Ifans that is undercut only by the fact that the object of his affections is as bland as dishwater.
The air is rife with passions of all stripes, careless, unrequited, calculating, and all heavy with the intrigues that fuel them. VANITY FAIR is alive with the raw energy of England at a time of social and economic upheavals, though it spends very little time exploring them as much as I would have like to have seen. We get the barest glimpse as wars rage, fortunes are made and lost, and there is the odd spectacle of English ladies dressed at Indian Nautch dancers as the centerpiece of an evenings entertainment in Mayfair. At it’s core, Witherspoon is irresistible, overcoming the weak parts of the story with a knowing tilt of her head and eyes that blaze with equal parts righteous indignation and naked ambition. Later, in my favorite moment, its the same tilt, the same intelligence, but beneath a veil covered in stars, tempered with the hard-won wisdom her life has given her as she encounters her past literally walking up to her. If there’s bound to be more than one comparison between a tearful stairway farewell that comes much earlier in this film and a similar one in GONE WITH THE WIND, never mind. This is a rich experience with much sound, a great deal of fury, and ultimately, much significance.