In Victorian England, 40,000 novels were published every year. Of the few that have endured, perhaps none is more worthy of a film adaptation than Vanity Fair, if for no other reason than this: It's a chore to read. Clocking in at 850 pages, with frequent excursions into unrelated subjects or expendable characters (Thackeray, like many Victorian novelists, published serially and was paid by the word), it is a lesson in exasperation.
What's more, Vanity Fair has heroine Becky Sharp, a steely, pragmatic and scheming social climber whose genius for manipulation has crowned her with enduring notoriety -- and adulation, for many. Director Mira Nair is an admirer, and in her roiling, naturalistic film, Becky is not an icy psychopath, as one amazon.com reviewer has dubbed her, but a complex woman whose ambition to rise above her lot feels both sympathetic and familiar. In fact, it feels American.
That's why Reese Witherspoon, an American in a cast of British notables (including the unparalleled Eileen Atkins), is such a great choice. Her Becky is a richer, deeper and far more womanly version of Election's Tracy Flick, purposefully cultivating her feminine wiles, and using her intelligence of other people's motives, to advance her agenda. (One character says of her, "I had thought her a mere social climber. I see now she is a mountaineer.") Pregnant while the film was shot, Witherspoon radiates with flesh and with life. Her Becky is smart, funny and not merely sharp but also soft, allowing attachment to her naive friend Amelia (Romola Garai) and to Becky's husband, the sanguine Rawdon Crawley (James Purefoy).
Nair, too, is an excellent match for Thackeray. The director of Monsoon Wedding and Mississippi Masala didn't set out to do it; when the studio came calling, she saw the opportunity to bring to the screen what she loved about the novel (largely, its portrayal of the economics of colonialism, via characters stationed in India). As a result, the film heaves with sensuality -- not sexuality, though there is some of that, but with the colors, sounds and textures of an imperialist society mining its territories for spices, fabrics, music, animals, fashion and so on.
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Ever aware of class, Nair shows us the coalmongers as well as the lords and ladies; a scene in which one character rides a private coach through the streets of London begins with a man shoveling the horseshit from out of the path. There are birds, flowers, feasts and jewels aplenty; for weather we are treated to pouring rain and its attendant mud. Dogs, too, are in abundance, beginning with a lumbering Irish wolfhound whose natty beard is yet another indicator, among the many rendered, for the decrepitude of the estate where it lives. Nair never misses a chance to embrace chaos; she wants to give us as complete a picture as possible of every stratum of society and, ultimately, a notion of how these strata intertwine.
It's a Victorian sensibility -- and it's an ambitious project. Thackeray luxuriated in his 850 pages; Nair has but two and a half hours, and they aren't enough. The book has been chopped with care, but the film tornadoes through the plot, coursing through Becky's seesawing fortunes, and a spate of her male admirers, without allowing time to establish the emotional groundwork. The acting is excellent, and most scenes land where they should, but there is not a lot of build. Once in a while, things even turn silly, as when a momentary attempt to capture a character's ten years in India collapses into a farce of straggly hair, mustaches and yogic wrestling. By the end, neither resolution (one to Amelia's plot and another to Becky's) carries much import. It's all very amusing, but not affecting.
What's best about Vanity Fair, in addition to Witherspoon and Nair, is its humor. Atkins is hilarious as the crotchety Miss Crawley, wrinkling her nose at the slightest provocation: "Keep your toadying until I get to a fire. You can suck up all you want once I'm warm." Astonished by news of her brother's proposal to Becky, Miss Crawley rises from her modest bath to reveal a naked left buttock. (You go, Eileen!) The slithering Marquess of Steyne (Gabriel Byrne), inviting Becky to dine with his family, compares his wife to Lady Macbeth and his daughters to Goneril and Regan. And Bob Hoskins does a raucous turn as Sir Pitt Crawley, master of the decaying mansion Queen's Crawley, who falls under the spell of Becky's civilizing influence.
In a post-screening interview, Nair explained that she was not interested in making a period piece in the vein of Merchant-Ivory. Instead, she wanted to create something sensual and alive, and she has done that. She has also given us a feminist (or perhaps humanist) reading of Becky, which is equally welcome. And yet, while the film bubbles with humor, sensual detail and heaps of plot, it never quite becomes more than the sum of its parts. It's well worth seeing, but it isn't transcendent.