Published on January 14th, 2005 | by Michelle Thomas0
Cast: Reese Witherspoon, James Purefoy, Eileen Atkins, Gabriel Byrne, Romola Garai, Rhys Ifans, Jonathan Rhys Meyers
Vanity Fair is the first of a number of adaptations of classics due this year that are embracing historical realism (the next being Working Title’s adaptation of Pride & Prejudice). Adapted for the screen by among others Julian Fellowes (Gosford Park) and directed by Mira Nair (Monsoon Wedding) it features an incredible cast and takes an interesting look at the Regency Period.
It’s easy to forget, watching our chocolate box, English Heritage adaptations of period novels, that the Regency was an incredibly exciting, dissolute, debauched, fun period of history. England was at war with Napoleon, and was also making its mark on the world – the beginnings of Empire – in the West Indies and in India, The opportunities created by the East India Company had made many a second son and black sheep rich, retuning to their families as ‘Nabobs’. At this time there was much less of the later racism of Victorian times – many of the men went native and took Indian wives, and India was perceived as exotic and exciting.
All of this was explored by William Makepeace Thackery in his novel and forms the backdrop to Mira Nair’s film. Rebecca Sharp (Witherspoon), orphaned and destitute daughter of a painter and an opera dancer, goes to work at Miss Pinkerton’s Academy, where she befriends sweet Amelia Sedley (Garai). On her way to a post as a governess at Sir Pitt Crawley’s home, Becky spends a week with the Sedleys, where she flirts with Amelia’s nabob brother Joseph (Tony Maudsley). At a picnic in the Vauxhall Gardens Becky also meets Amelia’s spoiled, vain fiancé George Osborne (Rhys Meyers) and his friend, the touchingly faithful William Dobbin (Ifans), who is in love with Amelia. Though he is a tradesman’s son, George cannot bear the idea of being allied by marriage to a governess and puts Joseph off. Down but not defeated, the intrepid Becky sets off for Sir Pitt’s home.
It’s not the comfortable home of a baronet that she was expecting, but Becky soon makes her mark on the household and charms first Sir Pitt (Hoskins) and then his rich spinster sister Matilda (Atkins) who, taken with Becky’s saucy ways, invites her to live with her as her companion in Mayfair. Accompanying them on their journey is Sir Pitt’s handsome soldier son, Rawdon (Purefoy) who hopes to seduce Becky in the traditional manner. But Becky is sharper than that (see what I did there?) and she marries him. Disinherited, Rawdon and Becky are forced to live on their wits. Can Becky triumph in the end and rise in the new society? And will Amelia marry her George and live happily ever after, despite her father’s bankruptcy?
Becky Sharp: hero or villain. Discuss.
Nair clearly thinks that Becky is the hero of Vanity Fair and though she is described as a minx and a fox by characters in the film we are obviously meant to admire her tenacity and ambition and her Scarlett O’Hara like determination to fight another day. This sits oddly with the Becky I remember from the novel; Reese Witherspoon calls Becky ‘an early feminist’ but Becky is about as much of a feminist as Jordan. Book Becky is a rapacious, manipulative social climber and very much a man’s woman – she’s not interested in helping anyone but herself. This is not helped by Witherspoon playing Becky as a Regency version of Elle Woods in Legally Blonde, every setback dealt with with a breezy ‘bend and snap!’. Its seems that Witherspoon likes to be liked.
The rest of the cast, while adequate, are mainly playing archetypes, and not given a great deal to do. James Purefoy is dejected, Rhys Ifans mulish, Jonathan Rhys Meyers acts with his cheekbones and Romola Garai, while good, is stuck playing a simpering dullard with none of Becky’s wickedness or charm. The older generation come off slightly better but this is Witherspoon’s film for better or for worse.
The references to Empire give the film a lovely fresh look; costumes are fantastically colourful showing the new fabrics, feathers and jewellery being imported from the sub-continent – a far cry from all that white muslin. Nair takes this slightly too far when she inserts a Bollywood style number into the middle of the film (Thackeray wrote this scene as a game of charades) but for the most part it works very well, and brings a fresh eye to the period as Ang Lee did in Sense & Sensibility. The film shows what a multi-cultural society Britain was at the time, with not only black and Asian servants but also the scene where old Mr Osborne (Broadbent) wants George to marry Miss Swartz (Kathryn Drysdale) the mixed-race heiress to a Jamaican sugar fortune.
Vanity Fair is an enjoyable enough film but its not a patch on the book!