William Makepeace Thackeray’s sprawling comic novel Vanity Fair has been irresistible where the movies are concerned, going back as far as 1911. Four adaptations were made even before the dawn of sound, followed by two talkies. The “definitive” version, Becky Sharp, made in 1935 by Rouben Mamoulian, remains a stylistic and technical milestone (it was the first feature made via the full-color, three-strip Technicolor process). Viewing it still pays dividends today.
Though there have been three BBC mini-series since, the property stopped being adapted for the screen with the 1935 work. That is, until now. Mira Nair and her trio of screenwriters perhaps should have looked a little more carefully at the Mamoulian film as a guide on how to bring Thackeray’s heroine to the screen — the clue being in the very title.
The Mamoulian film shrewdly opted to make Becky the focus of its story (taking its cue from Langdon Mitchell’s stage version); all other story lines were relegated to so much background, making for a movie of tractable length. Nair’s adaptation makes the mistake of being overly ambitious, trying to cram as much of the book as possible into an 137-minute running time. And while she and screenwriters Matthew Faulk, Mark Skeet and Julian Fellowes have done an admirable job, they couldn’t keep the film from feeling a bit cluttered, slightly rushed and, finally, a tad overlong.
There’s also a certain irony in the fact that a 2004 production decided to soften Thackeray’s sociopathic anti-heroine, while a ’35 film felt no such impulse. The cheerfully amoral Becky is perhaps best defined in a line from the Mamoulian film, in which she remarks, upon seeing the soldiers preparing to head off to the battle of Waterloo, “In a few hours, they’ll be dying for their country; I’m dying for my breakfast.” There is nothing remotely that cynical and self-serving about Becky in the current version. Similarly, in the Mamoulian film, we find Becky hurling her copy of Dr. Johnson’s Dictionary at the hateful boarding-school mistress who gives it to her as a parting shot at her tormentor; in the update, Becky merely drops it out the carriage window as she rides off. Pretty weak tea, comparatively.
However flawed Nair’s film may be, it still has so many rewards to offer that it almost seems petty to complain about its problems. That’s especially true since Vanity Fair manages to avoid that deadly sense of being nothing more than Masterpiece Theatre on the big screen (much as the recent version of Nicholas Nickelby also did). Working from a relatively small budget of $23 million (peanuts for a large-scale period-piece these days), Nair has crafted a film so beautifully designed and costumed as to look far more expensive than it actually was.
In a bold move that surprisingly works, Nair has infused Vanity Fair with her own personality, depicting the British fascination with India and things Indian; she often floods the screen with the same kind of vibrant color scheme that marked her Monsoon Wedding. This comes as a more than welcome respite from the often-drab and cold British surroundings in which much of the film takes place (and it suggests one intriguing reason behind Great Britain’s imperialist annexing of so much of the world).
Yes, Nair’s film bites off more than it can chew, but it brings a lot of style — and a plethora of great performances, even if some are extraneous — to its attempts. While Reese Witherspoon is capable of being one of the most annoying actresses working today (in her Legally Blonde mode), she again proves — as she did in The Importance of Being Earnest — that she’s capable of far more nuanced work when given the chance.
Softened as her Becky is, Witherspoon still manages to capture the social-climbing, scheming intellect essential to the character. And at times — as when Witherspoon is called upon to seem genuinely shocked that the Marquis of Steyne (Gabriel Byrne) expects sexual favors for his patronage — that’s no small feat. That the actress can manage to make Becky seem innately intelligent throughout is, in fact, something of a miracle that perhaps attests more to Witherspoon’s own personality than to her acting skill.
There is likewise delightful work to be found in the performances of Bob Hoskins as the jovially crude Sir Pitt Crawley, and even more so in Eileen Atkins’ portrayel of the cynically outspoken and very wealthy Matilda Crawley. Atkins, in fact, steals the show every time she shows up onscreen; however, she’s smart enough to realize that Witherspoon makes a perfect foil for her performance, and never upstages the star.
Even though he’s largely wasted in one of the more ill-advised inclusions, the great Jim Broadbent manages to infuse his character with more depth than the script actually affords him. Most of the men who cross Becky’s path (with the exception of Byrne’s Steyne and Hoskin’s Sir Pitt) are rather callow and uninteresting, though the same can be said of them in the novel (which doesn’t seem terribly impressed with the young men of its day). The only youthful departure from this is the lovably goofy Joseph Sedley, played by British TV-actor Tony Maudsley (the spitting image of the young Harry Secombe). Maudsley manages to bring just the right edge of satire to the proceedings, suggesting that the joke is as much on the scheming Becky as on anyone else.
In the end, Nair’s Vanity Fair doesn’t supplant Mamoulian’s 1935 adaptation of the novel. Yet hers is still a film very much worth having.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke