Feature by: Jack Foley
AT FIRST glance, the choice of Indian director, Mira Nair, might
seem like a surprising choice to adapt William Makepeace Thackeray's
classic Vanity Fair into a movie.
Yet, by Nair's own admittance, the decision had 'a wonderful
serendipity' about it.
First of all, Thackeray spent much of his early childhood in
India (like Nair), and so was influenced by how different cultures
informed domestic imperial England during the first quarter of
the 19th Century.
Needless to say, under Nair's direction, the film gets to explore
such influences in a visually striking way, adding much flavour
to proceedings and reducing the 'period costume drama' feel.
What's more, Nair herself has been a long-time fan of Thackeray's
work and counts the character of Becky Sharp as one of her biggest
"This was actually one of my favourite novels since I was
16, in an Irish-Catholic Boarding School in India, where I was
a great lover of English literature and had read it," she
explained, at a press conference held during last year's London
Film Festival at The Soho Hotel.
"It's the kind of banquet of a novel that I've drifted to
over the years and every time I did it gave me something new.
"What I love about it is the fact that Becky Sharp is completely
alive and well today; she's a totally modern girl and I think
that's why she stuck in my mind from 16 because very much like
Becky I was an Indian chick who didn't quite do what I was supposed
to, and made my own way, you know."
Having been invited to direct the film by Focus Features, the
company behind Nair's last film, Monsoon Wedding, the director
set about stamping her own style on it.
She began by amassing a strong ensemble cast, including American
actress, Reese Witherspoon, in the lead role, as well as some
of the top British actors of the moment, such as established thespians,
Jim Broadbent, Bob Hoskins and Gabriel Byrne, to emerging stars,
Rhys Ifans and James Purefoy.
It was a decision which, according to one of the film's co-writers,
Julian Fellowes, works to its advantage.
"I think that the decision to cast an American as Becky
Sharpe, but not have any other Americans in the cast, which of
course could easily have been done, means that Reese has a sort
of different rhythm, because Americans have a different energy,
and you do, I think, have a sense that, even though her accent
is flawless and all the rest of it, you have a sense that she
is marching to a rhythm of a slightly different drum to all the
"That, for me, is completely true to the Thackeray Becky
Sharp, that she's with these people, but she's not of them ever
- she's always somehow pacing herself.
And that, I think, simply in the casting, has been wonderfully
For James Purefoy, who plays Becky's
husband, the dashing Rawdon Crawley, the opportunity of appearing
in a film directed by Nair proved too tempting to resist - even
though he has appeared in period pieces before.
"Having seen her films, you could see there was a director
of astonishingly fierce intelligence that's right in the middle
of those other films, and the cohesiveness of those other films
is so strong that you'll see all the compartments are pulled together
by this person in the middle who is just so demanding to get the
passion, to get the film that she's got in her mind up on the
"That was the biggest challenge for all of the actors, I
think, to help Mira achieve that, because it was so specific what
Having got her cast in place, however, Nair then had another
challenge to overcome - that of Witherspoon's pregnancy, which
she candidly admits turned into an opportunity.
"In a sense, it was like a prophecy that I had wished for
that came true, because when I first met Reese she was really
a tiny girl, and I like sensuality and fullness. I'm not a fan
of the under-fed actor, and so I actually made a joke about it
with Reese and her husband, you know, 'do something, I need some
more flesh on the girl'," she laughed.
"This was, of course, a year before we began shooting, and
so I loved that fleshiness, I loved that sensuality, and, for
me, it's important, because Reese plays 18-35 in this movie, and
there's that womanliness to her, otherwise she's really a tiny
"But, of course, there were certain strategies we had to
employ at other parts of the movie, like hiring a number of young
extras, who came up to the level of her bump, that I would put
very strategically in the frame of the long lens to cover just
"Or there would be a lot of screen wipes of carriages going
by at sort of strategic moments. All of that kind of thing was
planned because I didn't want a talking head kind of movie."
It's safe to say that the finished movie will take many viewers
by surprise - not least because of how successfully the mix works.
Nair stamps her distinctive visual style all over the film, while
also taking care to retain its classic feel, while Witherspoon
provides a feisty, memorable turn as Becky Shaw who, in Nair's
opinion, is 'literature's greatest female character'.
And co-writer, Fellowes, is sure that audiences will have no
trouble agreeing with this sentiment.
"My feeling, my very strong feeling actually, is that Thackeray
is very much in favour of Becky Sharp - he likes her energy, he
likes the fact she's a doer and shaker, he likes the fact that
she doesn't accept the hand that life has dealt her, and that
does, to me, make her a very kind of modern heroine.
"She's very much in key with the way we think now. I mean,
one of the problems with adapting some of Dickens and that kind
of thing is that, essentially, that kind of Victorian heroine,
who is kind of expected to sit back and take it on the chin, is
not a type that we particularly admire now, and so you find in
adaptations a completely artificial storyline kind of jerked in
to try and energize these women and make them relevant to a modern
"Well, in Vanity Fair, you don't have to do that. This is
a modern woman that we both found very appealing," he concluded.