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September 2004

By Julian Roman

Vanity Fair

Distributor: Focus Features
Director: Mira Nair
Producers: Janette Day, Lydia Dean Pilcher, Donna Gigliotti
Screenwriters: Matthew Faulk, Julian Fellowes, Mark Skeet, based on the novel by William Makepeace Thackery
Cinematography: Declan Quinn
Composer: Mychael Danna
Cast: Reese Witherspoon, Romola Garai, James Purefoy, Rhys Ifans, Gabriel Byrne, Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, Bob Hoskins, Eileen Atkins, & Jim Broadbent




A beautifully plumed peacock prances about during the opening credits of Vanity Fair. It fittingly describes the film, looks pretty, but is completely uninteresting. Mira Nair, the renowned Indian director behind Monsoon Wedding, really overstretches the scope of the story. She's going for a sweeping period epic about an irrepressible heroine. It's an admirable effort, but wholly misguided. William Thackeray's classic novel of the same name is the source material for the film. Originally published as a serial in a London newspaper, it ends up around nine hundred pages long. That's too much on the page to try to fit into a movie. Nair ends up cramming in as much story as possible. The result is a disjointed film that becomes incredibly tedious to watch. Her adaptation would have better been served as a mini-series on television. Then the grandeur of her effort could have been fully realized. Instead we get a lot of clutter, which is fantastic to the eye, but numbs the brain.

Hollywood's sleeper box office queen Reese Witherspoon stars as Becky Sharp. The story begins with her as an impoverished artist's daughter in 19th century England. Her father dies and she's placed in a strict boarding school. Becky envies the wealth and glamour of the aristocracy. She befriends a na´ve rich girl, Amelia Sedley (the lovely Romola Garai), and together they conspire to launch Becky into society. Her first stop is as a governess of the wealthy Crawley family. She uncharacteristically follows her heart and marries the wrong son. Rawden Crawley (James Purefoy) is a good man, but a drinker and gambler. Becky, unrivaled in her tenacity, continually schemes to climb the social ladder. Her efforts do not go unnoticed. The women of London society despise her. They see Becky as an ambitious peasant girl. She fights to get their affection, but never achieves it. Instead, she befriends the rich and powerful Lord Steyne (Gabriel Byrne). He helps her on her path, but his assistance comes with a price.

Vanity Fair is essentially a pulp soap opera. There's a lot of characters, numerous settings, affairs, the works. You can go deep by bringing up Thackeray's portrayal of England's rigid class system. Becky's a poor girl trying to make it in the rich world. She's no angel, but her plight is sympathetic. Mira Nair really focuses on this aspect of the story. The problem is that we understand this concept twenty minutes into the movie. Then you have another two hours of her beating us over the head with it. I think that Nair was afraid of offending the Thackeray literati, people who revere his work. She needed to do a lot of editing and reshaping of the plot to make it cinematically cohesive. Nair doesn't and it feels like the book is being read to you.

The film does have its positives. The performances are strong throughout, especially the supporting ones. Reese Witherspoon is good in the lead and holds her own against the vanguard of British actors. The costume designer, Beatrice Pasteur, will probably get an Oscar nomination for her work. Costumes are vital in period films and Pasteur does an excellent job. Witherspoon is obviously pregnant during the entire movie, but the dresses hide her condition as well as can be expected. At this point in the year, the award will either go to her or Emi Wada for Hero.

Mira Nair could have really nailed this film. She's a skilled director, but was a little too faithful for her own good. Audience reactions to the movie will be dramatically different. There's a select crowd of people, probably 90% women that love English costume dramas and will eat this up. Then there are those that would never voluntarily watch a movie like this. I'm somewhat in the middle. A good costume drama can be tremendously entertaining, but a bad one is probably the most boring experience in cinema. Vanity Fair, unfortunately, falls into the latter category.