Adapting a massive book such as Vanity Fair to the screen is an extraordinary endeavour. While watching the film I began to wonder if perhaps it was not better suited as a mini-series on television as opposed to a film just over two hours long. The book is a massive work, nearly nine hundred pages long depending on which copy you buy, and cramming everything from that book into a film is impossible. Purists are going to gripe about the Indian content in the film, but bear in mind Thackeray was born inCalcuttaand his father worked for the East Indian Company, thus the influence of Indian culture was upon the writer. In the hands of Indian filmmaker Mira Nair, the East Indian presence is certainly increased in the film, but to no one’s detriment. |
Adaptations of great English novels tend to polarize audiences. The take on most of them is that they are boring and stodgy affairs full of “British airs and arrogance”. In the hands of a capable filmmaker, these adaptations can be remarkable cinematic works. James Ivory has mastered this art with films such as A Room With a View (1986) and Howard’s End (1992), bringing the society, though repressed to vibrant life. It’s all in the approach and the acting. Bringing repression to the screen is a tricky job because one must always remember that beneath the surface of the repression beats a human heart full of love, hate and lust, beating furiously for attention. If that can be portrayed, there will be nothing remotely boring about adaptations of great British works.
Vanity Fair is dominated by a superb performance from Reese Witherspoon, who in the role of a manipulative social climber is sublime, far surpassing her best work in Election (1999) in a similar role. Absolutely aware of every move she makes and the consequences, Witherspoon moves through the film with the grace of a cat hunting prey, knowing when to pounce and when to call it a day. What her character does not always count on is the cruelty of those around her.
Becky (Reese Witherspoon) is an orphan of dubious birth, and as the story opens she is leaving Miss Pinkerton’s hated Academy with her good friend Amelia (Romola Garai) a highborn lass who has bonded with Becky. Becky takes a position as a governess in the estate of the rather odd Sir Pitt Crawley (Bob Hoskins). Once there she launches her full frontal assault for the attentions of the master’s son, Rawdon Crawley (James Purefoy) a military man. They marry to the horror of the boy’s aunt, once a champion of Becky’s and young Rawley is thrown out of the family. Amelia marries George (Jonathan Rhys-Meyer) a pompous soldier who weds the girl to spite his overbearing and arrogant father portrayed by the great Jim Broadbent. George dies in the battle ofWaterloo, while Rawley survives. Both women have children, upon whom Rawley dotes and begins racking up massive debts. Becky, restless and bored with her marriage finds a friend and benefactor in the powerful Steyne (Gabriel Byrne), and while in the book she becomes his mistress, in the film she remains innocent though certainly used by the man.
Her husband eventually leaves the marriage bringing Becky to the continent where she once again meets Amelia and her brother, a man Amelia had once asked Becky to consider as a husband. Again we stray from the novel, which leaves Becky a widow, whereas here she will run off with Jos for a lavish wedding.
As with the great English works the story comes full circle with everyone being with whom they should have been with in the first place. I think of Sense and Sensibility (1995) and the love between people that we knew was not going to work, the same is true of the characters within Vanity Fair.
Witherspoon is a revelation as Becky, capturing the greedy schemer she is but also bringing a sensitive vulnerability to a woman who just wants to belong and be someone in her life other than an orphan and the target of class insults. Her range in the film is remarkable and she more than proves that she is among today’s finest actresses. An Oscar nomination for best actress seems likely and high deserving.
The balance of the cast are relatively strong with some grumbling about Jonathan Rhys-Meyer who seems to play an attitude rather than a character, something he if often guilty of doing. Though Romola Garai acquits herself well throughout the film, she is obliterated whenever onscreen with Witherspoon.
Jim Broadbent, the great Jim Broadbent is once again magnificent as the tight fisted John Osborne, an arrogant and nasty man with a firm hold on his son. Is this the same actor who so cared for his wife in Iris (2001)?? It is.
Mira Nair does a fine job of keeping the film moving and though I am sure she will draw the wrath of Thackeray purists for the belly dance and the sitars on the track, she has created a bold and impressive film that will likely earn some Oscar attention. Her portrait of an intimate society is superb and the sequence after the battle of Waterloo is haunting in its visceral and raw power.
Is it a masterpiece, no, but a fine work.