Reese Witherspoon reigns over a full-bloom 'Vanity Fair.'
In "Vanity Fair," William Makepeace Thackeray's sly and sprawling satire of greed, pretension and social aspiration in Regency England, a penniless but undeniably ghetto-fabulous young orphan named Becky Sharp claws her way out of bohemia into the red-hot center of aristocratic society, gets tossed out on her ear and climbs back up again. Originally published as a serial, "Vanity Fair" features more cliffhanging reversals of fortune than an "E! True Hollywood Story." The ultimate celebrity survivor, Madonna has nothing on Becky Sharp.
FOR THE RECORD:
"Vanity Fair" —The caption for a photo accompanying the review of "Vanity Fair" in Wednesday's Calendar section identified the actor dancing with Reese Witherspoon as James Purefoy. It was Jonathan Rhys Meyers. The review listed the book's publication date as 1850; it appeared first as a monthly serial in 1847-48.
Real life bourgeois background notwithstanding, it's a part Reese Witherspoon was born to play. Nevertheless, she's been practicing. As a kittenish underdog with a will of reinforced titanium in Mira Nair's plush adaptation of Thackeray's novel, Witherspoon combines elements of Vanessa, the 15-year-old daughter of jailed derelicts who fights back against brutal middle-class paternalism in "Freeway"; Tracy, the grimly ambitious high school factotum who digs her way out of suburban Omaha in "Election"; Elle, the wily, ingratiating and unapologetically vulgar rich girl who triumphs over type and East Coast snobbery in "Legally Blonde"; and Melanie, the social-climbing clothing designer in the drippy "Sweet Home Alabama," which I half-watched on a plane and an Internet Movie Database search confirms chronicles "the adventures of a young woman with a white trash background [who] runs away from her husband in Alabama and reinvents herself as a New York socialite."
Written in the Victorian 1850s, "Vanity Fair" is set several decades earlier. The Napoleonic wars were raging and Eastern influences were all the rage; money pouring in from India had the same effect on society that money pouring in from anywhere does. With the fat, lecherous, high-living Prince Regent setting the tone for the 19th century party people, dandies turned to uttering withering bon mots full time, famous courtesans became bestselling memoirists and everybody piled up debt. Famously subtitled "A Novel Without a Hero," Thackeray's book spared no one. A century and a half later, this would create problems for $15-million-a-picture movie stars looking to play the characters.
"Vanity Fair" is a big, fat whale of a social satire, and Becky Sharp the kind of heroine movie stars dream of playing, only not exactly. Witherspoon's version is not as altogether callous as the original; nor are those closest to her quite as rakish or lamebrained. The simpering, self-annihilating Amelia Sedley is portrayed more fondly than foolishly here, in part thanks to Romola Garai's bubbly charm. And Becky's bon vivant husband, Rawdon (the dashing James Purefoy), is given a heart of gold. In one scene, Becky professes her love for her husband as he goes off to battle — not exactly what her novelistic counterpart was doing at the time.
The daughter of a "ravenous" artist and a French opera girl (back when a stage career had nothing on porn stardom), Becky is orphaned and sent to live at an exclusive school for society girls. There, she befriends Amelia, the daughter of a wealthy broker. Amelia's fat and absurd older brother, Jos (Tony Maudsley), the former collector of Bogley Walla, promptly falls in love with her. The story might have ended here were it not for the intervention of Amelia's fiancé, George Osborne (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), the son of a crass, socially ambitious merchant (Jim Broadbent) whose high hopes for his only son are thwarted when Amelia's family is ruined — thanks to him. George is vain, petulant and faithless, and Amelia worships him blindly. He marries her to spite his father, in part because of the tireless efforts of his friend William Dobbin (Rhys Ifans), who pushes them together despite his all-consuming, though terribly polite, passion for Amelia.
Becky has gone on to take a job as a country governess at the house of Sir Pitt Crawley (Bob Hoskins), an unkempt country baronet with an itchy wig and two unmarried sons. Elder son Pitt (Douglas Hodge) is a dull pedant who will inherit his father's estate. Second son Rawdon is a soldier, gambler and the pet of Sir Pitt's spinster Aunt Matilda (Eileen Atkins), an Oscar Wilde type in petticoats. Despite her love for Rawdon, her fondness for the witty, sharp-tongued Becky, and her insistence that she "adores imprudent matches," Aunt Tilly cuts them out of her will when she learns they have secretly married. As Rawdon warned Becky, "She talks like Oliver Cromwell, but thinks like George I."
Becky uses her wobbly marriage into the aristocracy as the first rung in the ladder of her vertiginous social climb — "I used to think she was a mere social climber," Amelia's mother, Mrs. Sedley (Deborah Findlay), observes, "I see now she's a mountaineer" — eventually becoming a favorite of the Marquess of Steyne (Gabriel Byrne). His leg-up to the oxygen-deprived summit of Mayfair society comes at a price, and precipitates Becky's downfall.
Nair makes the most of the extravagant splendor of the period while poking fun at its crassness, but overall she somewhat underplays its silliness. Part of this has to do with her usual loving attention to the astonishing visual detail of Maria Djurkovic's production design, which has a way of slowing down the action. But mostly you get the feeling that Thackeray's sense of the ridiculous has been reined less by directorial choice than by agentorial concern. This may not be the case, and Witherspoon, Purefoy and Garai seem game, but they never get quite as down-and-dirty as they could. In profiles and interviews, the movie's stars, director and screenwriter Julian Fellowes have suggested that, in this day and age, it's no longer possible to dislike Becky for her ambition.
The movie reinterprets Becky for a feminist era — which, like the book, says more about our society than about her character. Becky isn't bad because she flouts convention, she's monstrous because she steps on everyone on her way to fame, even her son. In this day and age, it's more disheartening to see the mindless pursuit of celebrity canonized than it would be to see yet another female character ostracized by society in a period drama. Thackeray clearly preferred Becky over Amelia (he made her smarter, more resourceful and better able to care for herself), and there is certainly plenty to admire, but the novel's claim to herolessness has as much to do with a reluctance to endorse Becky's selfish behavior as it does with a refusal to exalt Amelia's absurdly selfless abnegation.
Luckily, because they are less likely to go on to star in next summer's romantic comedies, the supporting characters are free to be as ridiculous, and gross, as they want to be. The liveliest scenes by far belong to the rouged and itchy-wigged biddies. Atkins steals the show as bawdy Aunt Matilda, especially when paired with Geraldine McEwan's Lady Southdown (who eventually becomes the younger Pitt's mother-in-law), a symphony of aristocratic tics and affectations. Lady Southdown's twittering nervousness plays off Atkins' caustic demeanor as Laurel played off Hardy.
Amelia's husband is a haughty, air-headed beauty, and Meyers' George is the picture of supercilious vanity. Hoskins plays the disheveled Sir Pitt with a gleeful expansiveness and warmth. He's the only one secure enough in his social position to live like a pig.
After having seen 19th century India through the eyes of English directors countless times, it's interesting to see the colonizer through the eyes of an Indian director. Whether Nair overplays the Far East influence on fashions of the times I don't know, but Regency London as it's shown here is almost entirely swathed in paisley-printed cashmere and topped with turbans. A certain painted decrepitude characterizes all but the youngest and most attractive characters.
Aside from the occasional sight of a subcontinental servant and the absurd gone-native stylings of Jos Sedley and Major Dobbin (sporting an improbable Fu Manchu mustache and St. Tropez tan), any directorial judgment on the British Empire feels somewhat reserved. One notable departure from the novel is the movie's end, in which Jos and India play a radically different role in Becky's destiny than they do in the book. It's possible that — aside from succumbing to the pressures of a Hollywood ending — Nair is suggesting an antidote to mindless materialism. It almost makes you wonder whether "Vanity Fair" is not the perfect text for a lesson in Buddhist detachment. Certainly, "Vanity Fair" is a never-ending Western story that benefits from Nair's philosophically Eastern point of view.
MPAA rating: PG-13 for some sensuality, partial nudity and a brief violent image
Times guidelines: Jane Austen would be fine with it
Reese Witherspoon...Becky Sharp
Romola Garai...Amelia Sedley
James Purefoy...Rawdon Crawley
Jonathan Rhys Meyers...George Osborne
Rhys Ifans...William Dobbin
Jim Broadbent...Mr. Osborne
Bob Hoskins...Sir Pitt Crawley
Eileen Atkins...Miss Matilda Crawley
Gabriel Byrne...The Marquess of Steyne
Focus Features presents a Tempesta Films/Granada Films Production. A Mira Nair Film. Costume Designer Beatrix Aruna Pasztor. Music Mychael Danna. Editor Allyson C. Johnson. Production Designer Maria Djurkovic. Director of Photography Declan Quinn. Associate Producers Matthew Faulk, Mark Skeet. Co-producer Jane Frazer. Executive Producer Jonathan Lynn. Executive Producers Howard Cohen, Pippa Cross. Produced by Janette Day, Donna Gigliotti, Lydia Dean Pilcher. Based on the novel by William Makepeace Thackeray. Screenplay by Matthew Faulk & Mark Skeet and Julian Fellowes. Directed by Mira Nair. A Focus Features Release.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun