Directed by Mira Nair
Screenplay by Julian Fellowes, Matthew Faulk and Mark Skeet
Starring Reese Witherspoon, with James Purefoy, Romola Garai, Bob Hoskins, Eileen Atkins, Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, Gabriel Byrne, Jim Broadbent, Geraldine McEwan, Rhys Ifans, Douglas Hodge
Rated PG-13; 137 minutes
It’s a tough call as to whether the very American, very 21 st-century Reese Witherspoon is miscast or perfectly cast as Regency-era British social striver Becky Sharp in director Mira Nair’s Vanity Fair. I’m leaning toward the latter, with the caveat that Witherspoon’s limitations as an actress, combined with Nair’s emphasis on presentational spectacle at the expense of emotional exploration, make this a coolly entertaining film rather than a totally involving one.
Nair wisely uses Witherspoon’s modern, trans-Atlantic quality to spotlight Becky’s alien-among-us role as a “mountaineering” social climber, making her stand out further and further the higher up the social ladder she ventures. And while Witherspoon the actress may not have the skill at accents, the vocal control or the precise comedic timing of co-stars like Bob Hoskins, Jim Broadbent, Gabriel Byrne and especially Eileen Atkins, well, very few people do.
What she does have, and uses here, is the movie star’s ability to take the audience into her confidence and get us on her side, even when the characters she plays are slightly suspect morally (the slutty sister in Pleasantville), over-privileged and undereducated (Legally Blonde) or downright obnoxious (ambitious, manipulative Tracy Flick in Election).
The other thing Nair, screenwriters Julian Fellowes, Matthew Faulk and Mark Skeet, and (I’m assuming) the novel’s author William Makepeace Thackeray really get right is their depiction of the era’s attitude toward marriage: as the most hard-headed and hard-hearted of fiscal and social bargains. It’s most baldly stated by Broadbent’s John Osborne, a well-to-do merchant who, despite making millions, is still looked down upon by the aristocracy, whether they themselves are penniless or rolling in dough. Osborne makes plain to his snobbish son George (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers) that the younger man’s marriage is about either adding to the family fortune, advancing them from the bourgeoisie or preferably both. Other factors, like the younger Osborne’s feelings; his sense of honor (he is engaged to pretty but newly penniless Amelia Sedley, played as an insipid twit by Romola Garai); and his casual racism are less than trivial — they’re not even a consideration.
(Political aside: With all the fuss about same-sex marriages, this movie should be required viewing for people who blather on about the “sanctity of marriage” and how it has been the “foundation of society for thousands of years.” It has — to the extent that the legitimacy of children allows money, property and social status to pass from one generation to the next. If we could separate those issues from the religious, emotional and sentimental aspects of marriage — all relatively recent accessories — we might be able to handle society’s progressive acceptance of homosexuality with more equanimity. But fat chance of that happening any time soon.)
The money-trumping-love pattern is repeated throughout the movie. Rich dowager Matilda Crawley (Atkins) recognizes and appreciates the charm, wit and intelligence of Witherspoon’s Becky Sharp. But Becky, an orphan with neither funds nor family but armed with a determined will and considerable beauty, is nevertheless the least attractive prospective bride that Matilda can imagine for her handsome nephew Rawdon Crawley (James Purefoy). When Becky and Rawdon elope and Matilda is reminded that she had said she loved elopements and inappropriate matches, the fabulous Atkins responds severely “In books, in books. Not in real life!”
Even for Byrne’s Marquess of Steyne, who has the money, power and position that make him both feared and envied, his marriage and family life are a kind of living death. When we see the pinched faces and tight waists of his wife and daughters-in-law, it’s understandable why he schemes for a taste of Witherspoon’s ripe young bride. The fact that her reputation and marriage are destroyed in the process is just collateral damage as far as Steyne is concerned.
Nair’s sympathies are certainly with Becky; the film is a from-the-bottom look at English society (one of the first shots shows Steyne’s well-polished boots walking past pigs who are snuffling and oinking through the mud and garbage on London’s streets). The casual waste of war is also eloquently presented: we don’t see England’s glorious victory over Napoleon at Waterloo, just the contorted, blown-apart corpses littering the battlefield afterward. Nor does Nair stint on the visual spectacle, with lavish balls, Indian-themed entertainments and ever-more-elaborate costumes courtesy of Beatrix Aruna Pasztor.
What’s lost amid the social comment, however, is a more detailed emotional mapping of the main characters’ actions. For example, it’s not quite clear whether Becky marries Rawdon for love, the expectation of his inheritance or animal lust. The ambiguity may be more true to real life, but it muddies the motivations and the stakes involved for Becky’s subsequent betrayals.
Even less understandable is Garai’s Amelia, the Melanie Wilkes to Becky’s Scarlett O’Hara. This supposedly “good” character not only gives up her child, but for years she cruelly strings along the man who actually loves her (Rhys Ifans’ Dobbin), pining for the cad she was briefly married to (Rhys-Meyers’ George Osborne). It’s a toss-up as to whether she is unconsciously cruel or merely emotionally retarded.
Of course, this may be Thackeray’s point (I haven’t read the novel) — that the “good” people are often sillier and more destructive than the “bad.” In this version, Nair and company reward both Becky and Amelia with happy endings, dulling the satire but giving Hollywood its due.