Vanity Fair (2004)

vanity fair

“I could be good for five thousand pounds a year.”

The Scoop: 2004 12, directed by Mira Nair and starring Reese Witherspoon, Jonathan Rhys Meyers and Gabriel Byrne.

Tagline: In a time of social climbers, Becky Sharp is a mountaineer.

The Scoop: Poor girl tries to make good through skulduggery, while the classic-novel-adaptation genre gets a kick in the pants.

Louise’s rating: Three out of Five Bonnets (disclaimer: one of those bonnets is just for the cast list)

Louise’s review: There is a genre of film (and indeed, TV) which can be summed up as Women In Bonnets Getting Married. Films in this genre are often seized on by mothers and daughters, or groups of female friends, to watch on weekend afternoons. The guys frequently just don’t get the appeal of the pretty houses, carriages, collar buttons and breeches, and rigid social class and social manners, so, bless ’em, they shrug their shoulders, and go away to do something Manly like ironing.

This is not that film. Oh, I still don’t think the men will like it much, unless they particularly admire Reese Witherspoon or Romola Garai. However, Vanity Fair, like the novel it’s based on, is the anti-Pride and Prejudice, or the anti-War and Peace. In terms of plot, the traditional trajectory of Woman In Bonnet Gets Married is twisted with grimly comic hypocrisy and bitchy wit. The grand house is there, but it’s a tumbledown wreck inhabited by grotesques. Our poverty-stricken heroine is irrepressible, beautiful and sparky, but also merciless, ruthless, hugely ambitious, and an emotional cold fish. The production is interesting. Many adaptation of classic novels pay slavish attention to historical/period detail, particularly in terms of dress, and have a cool colour palette – possibly taking their tone from grey/white mansions in large green parks in England, where it never stops raining – but this film is different. It is brightly coloured, hot, and all the characters are dressed like Liberace – their clothes are not period so much as period-inspired modern fashion, and the hair is so huge, lush and fluffy! Perhaps inspired by Mira Nair’s Indian nationality, empire and the dreams of empire are a constant presence.

Doesn’t mean it’s good, though, does it? Ultimately, I think Vanity Fair suffers by being too short for the source material. Trying to get 20 years of plot into a short film in a way that keeps it meaningful and actually worth watching as film is hard to do, and I don’t think Nair was entirely successful. Also, sometimes it doesn’t matter how good your script or editing skills are, your story is about horrible people and stupid people, and horrible and stupid people, and as characters they rarely make for a satisfying narrative experience.

Reese Witherspoon plays Rebecca Sharp, an orphan who schemes and claws her way from being a maid and governess to an excellent marriage with a man-of-the-world army officer, who’s actually a lot more naive than he thinks he is (James Purefoy). Still not satisfied, she rises still higher to become the mistress of a lord (Gabriel Byrne), before crashing down and having to start from the bottom all over again. She is what the Victorians would call an ‘adventuress,’ which doesn’t mean that she goes on great quests through New Zealand, but translates to ‘prostitute who won’t keep in the shadows.’ She has some genuine feelings, but essentially, all she wants is to be rich and respectable, and to stay like that. Romola Garai plays her friend Amelia Sedley, who loses money as Becky gains it, marries a man who cares little for her, then spends years tending his memory when she could make a wonderful second marriage to Rhys Ifans (that’s almost unforgiveable in my book).

The cast is good – Rhys Ifans and Romola Garai are usually worth the price of admission, and as the faithful Captain Dobbin and the gentle, if rather stupid Amelia, they are the characters to root for. Purefoy brings such pathos to Rawdon Crawley, Rhys Meyers is horrendously selfish as George Osbourne, and finally, in small roles we have Lady Catherine de Bough herself, from the famous 1995 BBC production of Pride and Prejudice, and John Woodvine as her husband. The script is also pretty funny.

I’m not sure that it’s very good as a whole, though. The first time I saw it, I really didn’t like it at all. I thought it anachronistic and annoying. The second time around, having just read the novel (it’s huge!), I found it interesting to spot the differences between the original and the adaptation, and I perhaps understood it more as an adaptation, but I still didn’t think it was much good.

This is how aristocratic Regency women behave, according to Mira Nair.
Intermission:
  • Don’t eat the chili, Becky!
  • In the novel, we get the impression that Amelia is much more shallow than Garai plays her. Also, Rawdon is a lot more stupid, and Becky has no genuine feelings for her friend, her father, her husband or her child. Additionally, in the novel it is her nastiness that causes her punishment, rather than her social climbing.
  • :::SPOILER SPOILER::: I am totally down with Amelia selling her child to his grandfather. He’s a spoiled brat!
  • Reese Witherspoon sings again!

Groovy Dialogue:

Mrs Sedley: I had thought her a social climber. I see now she’s a mountaineer.

Becky: I could be good for five thousand pounds a year.

Lord Steyne: You’ve taken the goods. Too late to query the price.

Pitt Crawley: My stepmother has gone to a better place.
Becky: After Queen’s Crawley, anywhere’s a better place.

If you enjoyed this film, try:

  • Pride and Prejudice
  • Forever Amber
  • Monsoon Wedding

2 comments

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