William Makepeace Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, a sprawling critical appraisal of the corruption, hypocrisy, and injustices of early-19th-century English society, came adorned with the subtitle “A Novel Without Heroes.” True to form, Thackeray’s incisive novel concerned two women—the shrewd orphan Becky Sharp, employing her wiles to climb society’s social ladder, and Amelia Sedley, her demure, wealthy friend thrust into poverty—whose positive qualities were substantially balanced by their (and their contemporaries’) selfishness, stubbornness, wickedness, and idiocy. Yet director Mira Nair, assuming the weighty task of transposing Thackeray’s 800-page behemoth to the screen, has chosen to imbue the author’s social climbing critique with a women’s lib streak that mistakenly makes the conniving Becky (embodied with bundles of charm but too little cutthroat cunningness by Reese Witherspoon) a symbol of modern feminist pluckiness.
Although abridged, Thackeray’s basic story outline remains: Becky, intent on moving up in the world through the only means possible (marriage), flirts with high society and weds gambler Rawdon Crawley (James Purefoy), whose family is set to inherit a sizeable chuck of change upon their matriarchal aunt’s death. As Becky and her husband attempt to make a living in London, Amelia (Romola Garai)—who has married the roguish snake George Osborne (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, once again too foppish for a role requiring caddish masculinity) instead of her doting friend Colonel Dobbin (Rhys Ifans, admirably trying to strike a dashing pose despite being forced, in the film’s silliest moment, to don long hair and a ludicrous Fu Manchu while stationed in India)—is financially ruined when her husband dies in the Napoleonic Wars and her family is destroyed by debts owed to George’s callous father (James Broadbent). Nair, eschewing the prudishness of so many cinematic adaptations of Victorian classics, drenches the proceedings in sumptuously vibrant colors that both breathe life into the staid country manor milieu as well as comment on the sexual underpinnings of Becky’s calculated machinations. Her film, from its glittering set design to its heroines’ heaving bosoms, is enticingly opulent.
Regally shot by Declan Quinn and scored with grace (aside from the occasionally inappropriate sound of sitars) by Mychael Danna, Nair’s stately costume drama does little to desecrate Thackeray’s opus. However, since Becky’s trajectory is significantly more interesting than the moronic Amelia’s—and since Witherspoon is a far more lively and transfixing presence than the milquetoast Garai—Vanity Fair (scripted by Matthew Faulk, Mark Skeet, and Julian Fellowes) spends a disproportionate amount of time focusing on the intriguing Becky while keeping the dullard Amelia off-screen. The consequence of such narrative imbalance is that the film becomes an awkward—and slightly unfaithful—period piece about one pretty woman’s uplifting elevation from poverty to prominence. It’s likely, though, that many will find Nair’s insistence on shoehorning India-related stuff into the film whenever possible even more off-putting. True, England’s colonial exploits during the period do afford the opportunity to garnish certain scenes with a curried Eastern flavor. But despite my imperfect memory of Thackeray’s work, I still can’t seem to recall any ludicrously ill-fitting scenes involving Becky entertaining the dastardly Lord Steyne (Gabriel Byrne) with a sensual, hip-swiveling Indian dance number.