Movie review: “Vanity Fair” pretty, but not sharp enough

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

“Vanity Fair” is a sight to behold. The 19th century British atmosphere hangs in the air and the colors are glorious. Sadly, there is the matter of the plot, something the film wishes it could do without.

If you’ve read William Makepeace Thackeray’s book, you probably remember Vanity Fair’s protagonist, Becky Sharp, as a nasty schemer. The daughter of a painter and an “opera girl,” she has lofty social ambitions and claws her way to the top. In the book, that is. Mira Nair’s movie makes Becky into a modern “you go girl!” heroine who is so charming that society simply cannot resist her. This interpretation robs the film of much of the book’s satiric punch and turns it into a cluttered drama.

There’s just too much plot for one movie. Becky (Reese Witherspoon) grows up as a servant in a boarding school, works as a governess, charms her way into London society, gets married, and so on. Thrown into the mix are her best friend, the conventional Amelia (Romola Garai); Amelia’s family; and a host of other characters, who drift on and off unpredictably and are often never fully introduced. The passage of time is confusing, as none of the characters visibly age, yet sometimes as many as 15 years pass by between scenes.

Reese Witherspoon’s Becky is sweet and pretty, and her English accent is passable (though her French needs work). However, her deeper motivations remain maddeningly opaque. The screenplay gives her no help, and we never sense Becky’s ambition. Two outstanding supporting performances pick things up somewhat: Eileen Atkins as Matilda Crawley, Becky’s first supporter, a fiery and prickly old woman with an acidic tongue. Gabriel Byrne is wonderfully evil as Lord Steyne, a wealthy aristocrat who’s willing to support Becky through her darker days in exchange for some favors. They add some welcome cynicism to the whole affair (“The best thing about being born into society is one knows early on what a tawdry public play it is,” comments Lord Steyne), though these elements coexist awkwardly with the straightforward drama of Becky’s story.

Vanity Fair remains a treat, however, for fans of good production values, 19th century settings, and truly beautiful photography. One only wishes that it could have been given the six hour length it deserves.

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