Photo by Frank Connor
In the last but two of the more than 200 illustrations inked, circa 1847, by Punch humorist William Makepeace Thackeray for the 19 monthly installments of his novel Vanity Fair, the cowardly Jos Sedley pleads with Colonel William Dobbin — the only one of his characters whom Thackeray did not regard as altogether “odious” — to protect him from the scheming, real or imagined, of his consort and traveling companion, Mrs. Rawdon Crawley, née Rebecca Sharp. At the far end of the room, concealed in shadow behind a bit of tattered curtain, lurks the sinisterly leering Mrs. Crawley herself, dagger (or is that a scarf?) in hand. Thackeray’s caption reads, “Becky’s second appearance in the character of Clytemnestra.”
No such Becky Sharp and no such inkling of malicious intent appear in Mira Nair’s turgid, melodramatic travesty of Thackeray’s gimlet-eyed satire. Nor does the pretentious silliness of the party charades that occasioned that ruthless climber’s first appearance as Clytemnestra; they have been replaced by a wholly anachronistic Bollywood kootch dance. And when Rhys Ifans’ Colonel Dobbin describes Becky as having about as much feeling for her child — and, by extension, anyone else — as “a cat does for its litter,” again, we have been introduced to no such character. On the contrary, we have just watched this supposedly indifferent parent tearfully press her fingers to the glass of the carriage that is to cart a fragile Rawdon Jr. off to boarding school.
Whence the transformation — from satire to melodrama, from “novel without a hero” to portrait of a bighearted if vaguely disreputable lady? Perhaps more urgently, how does a stroke of casting genius — Reese Witherspoon as Becky Sharp, a matchup not so much inspired as pre-ordained since she played a teenage Becky in Alexander Payne’s Election — end up conveying so little of what’s at once appalling and perversely attractive about the would-be mistress of Vanity Fair?
It certainly may have something to do with Witherspoon’s own vanity, with an Oscar-less young star’s need to be loved more than anyone could conceivably love the “real” Becky Sharp. It absolutely does have something to do with Witherspoon laboring under the same generic if fine-tuned English accent that has at one time or another afflicted the likes of Gwyneth Paltrow and Angelina Jolie. (Meanwhile, Natasha Little, the British actress who played Becky so credibly in the excellent 1998 BBC miniseries, is here consigned to a thankless supporting role.) Yet the deeper problems with this Vanity Fair lie with the extent to which Nair and her screenwriters (among them Gosford Park’s Julian Fellowes) were at liberty to turn Thackeray’s black-comic panorama of London society — of “people living without God in the world . . . greedy, pompous, mean, self-satisfied” — into a mere backdrop to the instructive saga of one sympathetic and resourceful young woman’s spirited if doomed rebellion against hypocrisy and social caste. (From the relentlessly P.C. director of Mississippi Masala and Monsoon Wedding, this was predictable.) Wiser producers might have insisted that Nair import (as Kubrick did for Barry Lyndon) a clarifying dose of the author’s one-wit-skewers-all narration. Nair, apparently, found it antithetical to her purpose.
Setting aside the question of fidelity to its source — no mean feat when it comes to assessing an expensive literary adaptation — what of those who haven’t had the pleasure of a prior acquaintance, who arrive at the theater primed for a lively two-plus hours of fancy-dress wit and scandal, another helping of Pride and Prejudice or Nicholas Nickleby? If one makes further allowances for a saccharine score, leaden direction, murky lighting and the waste of Bob Hoskins (as the seedy Baronet Pitt Crawley), this Vanity Fair is not without its pleasures. The set pieces and costumes are sumptuous, if overbearing. Eileen Atkins (as the wealthy spinster Matilda Crawley), Gabriel Byrne (as the corrupt Marquess of Steyne) and James Purefoy (as Rawdon Sr.) bring any number of scenes — and, happily, Ms. Witherspoon — to unexpected life, as do the many Indian or India-tinted scenes, intended presumably to enlist Thackeray in the service of a backward-looking anti-colonial agenda, but nonetheless full of color and zest. Still, even those who haven’t read Vanity Fair may find themselves questioning Becky Sharp’s right to an ending as happy as the one provided for her by Nair & Co. — and wondering what the devil is she doing on the back of that elephant?
VANITY FAIR | Directed by MIRA NAIR | Written by MATTHEW FAULK, JULIAN FELLOWES and MARK SKEET, from the novel by William Makepeace Thackeray | Produced by JANETTE DAY, LYDIA DEAN PILCHER and DONNA GIGLIOTTI | Released by Focus Features | Citywide