Growing up as the poor daughter of a gifted painter in early 19th century London, Becky Sharp (Reese Witherspoon) defies her poverty-stricken background as she ascends the social ladder alongside her best friend, Amelia (Romola Garai). She starts as a governess for the low grade Sir Pitt Crawley (Bob Hoskins) and secretly marries his son Rawddon (James Purefoy). Eventually she finds the door to high society through one of her father's patrons, the Marquess of Steyne (Gabriel Byrne), but as he predicts, it's a door that leads nowhere nice. Always ambitious, Becky finds the price of her ambitions rather high.
Review by Louise Keller:
Infused with the richness of underlying flavours and textures from India, Mira Nair's Vanity Fair is a handsome and lavishly produced period drama about love, ambition and happiness. Vibrant colours, sumptuous settings, beautiful costumes and a lyrical score complement Oscar winner Julian Fellowes' (Gosford Park) immaculately structured and intelligent adaptation (from William Makepeace Thackeray's acclaimed novel), as we observe the challenging steep climb up the social ladder by Reece Witherspoon's ambitious, manipulative and penniless Becky.
Set at the turn of the 19th century, when birthright and wealth represent the key that opens society's door, Vanity Fair displays only too well the differences between the classes, the perceptions, the privileges, the taboos. We, like Becky, lurch to and from the world of the privileged so quickly that we become dizzy. As fortunes turn, so do attitudes. 'The chief advantage of being born into society is knowing how tawdry it is,' says Gabriel Byrne's wealthy, titled society ace tells Becky with a tired expression. And how tawdry it is, we discover through Becky's calculated journey, as she is adapts, changes tack and puts her ambition above anything and anyone.
Witherspoon is splendid as the bright, determined young English woman intent on becoming a society rose, oblivious to the thorns. When she finds love with the dashing heir Rawdon Crawley (James Purefoy, charismatic), she is undeterred when he is disinherited, but heartlessly discards her chance at happiness, in pursuit of her dream. There's a poignant scene when Rawdon asks Becky if she is sure she knows what she is doing, when it is clear that their future happiness together is what is at risk. After Becky overcomes the challenge of passing 'through the door' that opens acceptance in the world of the upper class, it is too late to consider the consequences. 'Once goods have been taken, it is too late to complain about the price,' muses Byrne's The Marquess. And Byrne brings much to the role, with a performance filled with gravitas.
Nair has gathered a sterling ensemble cast including Bob Hoskins as the eccentric Sir Pitt Crawley, Jonathan Rhys Meyers as the rebelliously arrogant George Osborne, Rhys Ifans almost recognisable as the serious, unselfish, unlucky in love William Dobbin, Jim Broadbent, Dame Eileen Atkins (in a role that could have been played by Maggie Smith) and more.
Nair guides us through the Becky's emotional journey with grace and skill, and when Becky tells her friend Amelia 'Some follies can be remedied,' we know the journey has not been in vain.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
Mira Nair's cinematic language is a visual feast of colour, detail, depth and mood. (Mississippi Masala, Monsoon Wedding). She pours great passion into her films, finds it in her actors and tells a good story. Vanity Fair is an exception. She still commands cinematic language with great skill, but the film's uneven performances and clunky structure suggest Nair has been seduced by a novel that can't be tamed on screen as a feature film. Perhaps a mini series could capture the work, but as a film - even at almost two and a half hours - the adaptation is episodic and laboured. The adaptation robs the work of much of its context; devoid of the gradual development, it seems oddly incoherent.
There are some great moments, and some strangely awful ones. The film is filled with outstanding acting talent, but they are not always handed matching dialogue. The story of a headstrong young woman who tries to make her way upwards in early 19th century English society is risky territory to start with. The importance and relevance of social standing and the nuances of 19th century English society no longer resonate in our contemporary world. Nevertheless, the themes of loyalty, friendship, love and social structures are universal and timeless. But this screenplay doesn't bring them close to us. Or clear to us.
Kept enthralled in the first half by the performance of Eileen Atkins as wealthy and outspoken Matilda Crawley, and in a later chapter by Gabriel Byrne as the Marquess of Steyne, the script is often confusing and characters (who we calmly get to know and place if reading the novel) jump out onto the screen - sometimes in scenes that are jarringly juxtaposed.
Bob Hoskins and Rhys Ifans turn in nicely balanced work in fresh characterisations, as does Romola Garai, but I don't feel Reese Witherspoon is stretched at all in an unsympathetic role. Her performance belongs in a different film.
This ambitious but flawed work permits caricatures next to real characterisations, its meaningful themes are often dismembered by cliché, and its visual power is obscured by wrongfooted dramatic direction.
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VANITY FAIR (PG)
CAST: Reese Witherspoon, James Purefoy, Romola Garai, Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, Gabriel Byrne, Jim Broadbent, Bob Hoskins, Rhys Ifans
PRODUCER: Janette Day, Lydia Dean Pilcher, Donna Gigliotti
DIRECTOR: Mira Nair
SCRIPT: Matthew Faulk, Julian Fellowes, Mark Skeet (novel by William Makepeace Thackeray)
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Declan Quinn
EDITOR: Allyson C Johnson
MUSIC: Mychael Danna
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Maria Djurkovic
RUNNING TIME: 142 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Icon
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: September 30, 2004