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Bonfire of the Inanities

 

Vanity Fair

Mira Nair, USA, 2004

Rating: 2.7

 

Posted: September 4, 2004

By Laurence Station

Adapting William Makepeace Thackeray’s Vanity Fair for film is no small endeavor. Such an undertaking all but demands a suitable forum in which to adequately explore the myriad plot threads Thackeray deftly weaves through high and low British society in the early 19th-century. As such, it all but begs for mini-series treatment. Monsoon Wedding director Mira Nair’s big-screen adaptation doesn't have that luxury, and at less than two and a half hours, it tries vainly to touch on too many of the novel's characters and subplots without sufficient time to adequately explore them, and suffers greatly as a result.

The skeleton of Thackeray’s satirical tale is simple: Low-born Becky Sharp (Reese Witherspoon) and her middle-class childhood friend Amelia Sedley (Romola Garai) fall in love, bear offspring, become widowed, and eventually find varying degrees of contentment in their different stations. As in the book, Becky is the far more prominent character, although the only thing sharp about her in Nair’s version is her maiden name. Reese Witherspoon is an extremely likable actress, plucky and smart, comfortably inhabiting the role of the overachieving heroine. But Nair's and Witherspoon's interpretation of the character doesn't allow for the book's presentation of Becky as a social climbing ice queen who ruthlessly goes after what she wants and eventually finds a smidgen of generosity in her dotage. Instead, Nair, Witherspoon and a trio of screenwriters (most notably Gosford Park Oscar winner Julian Fellowes) choose to emphasize Becky’s ascension up the social pecking order as a product of need (money) more than want (status). This approach, while making Becky a character one can root for, proves far less provocative than Thackeray’s considerably more conniving original.

But a nicer Becky is hardly the film’s biggest problem. The great challenge of successfully pulling off such a heavily abridged adaptation lies in the choices made regarding what stays in and what gets excised. Rather than focus on Becky to the exclusion of the various subplots, Nair and her team attempt to offer little slices of Vanity Fair. This decision proves costly to the film’s sense of momentum; just as we get going with one situation, we’re reintroduced to another micro-drama. This results in a shortchanging of any emotional build-up the other entanglements depend upon to ensure a satisfying sense of closure. The most glaring example of this is in the protracted courtship of perpetual second-stringer William Dobbin (Rhys Ifans) and the fetching Amelia. When the two finally embrace, it feels rushed and stunted. The entire credibility of Amelia’s acceptance of Dobbin depends on the young widow’s gradual awareness of his undying love and devotion to her, and there’s simply not enough time spent developing that. Thus, the dénouement falls flat. If you’ve only got a few hours to work with, the choice is simple: All Becky, to the exclusion of everything else.

Vanity Fair isn't without its charms, however. The acting is uniformly strong, with Gabriel Byrne’s cynical nobleman, the Marquess of Steyne, towering above the rest; his ferocious dressing down of his snobby family at the dinner table is the one scene worthy of Thackeray. By the end credits, sadly, it’s all much ado about very little, and the fault can be traced directly to Becky’s positive, Teflon-like outlook. She’s lost her husband, and in-laws are raising her son, but she eagerly heads off to India for an exotic new adventure. Has she grown? Has she endured emotional hardships and prevailed? Perhaps. But we’re never given sufficient expression of this suffering or shown any deeper wisdom gleaned from her unhappy experiences. What’s left is a gorgeously filmed, professionally executed misfire.

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