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Vanity Fair (PG)



Review by: Jack Foley | Rating: Two

DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: Welcome To Vanity Fair (behind the scenes). The Women Behind Vanity Fair. Deleted scenes. Audio commentary with director Mira Nair.

ON PAPER, it seems like an odd mix of ingredients - an acclaimed Indian director taking on a classic English tale with a high-profile American actress in the leading role.

But Mira Nair's striking interpretation of William Makepeace Thackeray's Vanity Fair turns out to be a mouth-watering visual banquet for any fan of classic literature, complete with an outstanding central performance from Reese Witherspoon and a strong British support cast.

Condensing Thackeray's epic into a serviceable movie was always going to be a difficult task, yet both Nair and the writing team of Matthew Faulk, Mark Skeet and Julian Fellowes have risen to the task admirably, providing viewers with a classic tale that relates well to contemporary ideology, as well as providing them with a distinctive visual style.

The story itself exists on a vast scale, focusing on the life of Becky Sharp, the daughter of a starving English artist and a French chorus girl, who is orphaned at a young age, but determines to rise above the hand which life has dealt her - and society's dictats - to make her own fortune.

As she leaves Miss Pinkerton’s Academy at Chiswick, Becky resolves to conquer English society by any means possible, thereby employing all of her wit, guile and sexuality to make her way into high society during the first quarter of the 19th Century.

First, she gains employment as governess to the daughters of eccentric Sir Pitt Crawley (Bob Hoskins), winning over the children, and the Crawley family’s rich spinster aunt, Matilda (Eileen Atkins) in the process.

Their subsequent relationship provides Becky with the opportunity to move into the city, where she is reunited with her best friend, Amelia Sedley (Romola Garai), and gets to meet the dashing heir, Rawdon Crawley (James Purefoy), who she subsequently marries in secret.

But when Matilda hears of the union, she casts the newlyweds out, prompting Becky to, once again, fend for herself, even though heavily pregnant - as Rawdon is forced to report for military duty in a bid to stave off the threat from Napoleon's advancing army.

Such is Becky's determination to be accepted by London society, however, that she will stop at nothing to achieve her aim, eventually falling under the guidance of the powerful Marquess of Steyne (Gabriel Byrne), who offers Becky the chance to finally realise her dreams - but at what cost?

Clocking in at just under two and a half hours, Vanity Fair could so easily have become a tedious, lumbering affair that fails to engage with its audience.

It is a tribute to all involved, therefore, that the film emerges as a sweeping, sumptuous affair, that actually makes audiences care for its characters throughout the difficult journey they undertake.

Witherspoon, especially, is both sympathetic and ruthless as the ever-defiant Sharp, toying with viewers' emotions as she manipulates the lives of those around her with gleeful relish.

But she is given excellent support by the likes of Purefoy, as the tragic Crawley, and Garai, as her far-more traditional friend.

Strong, too, is Rhys Ifans, as William Dobbin (a distant admirer of Garai's Amelia), and the ever-excellent Jim Broadbent, as a hard-bitten father.

Yet all are well-served by Nair's excellent direction, which cleverly meditates on how much of imperial England was informed by the cultures across the sea.

Several set-pieces provide a rich visual feast (especially a slave-dance, late on), while there is always something surprising occupying the sidelines of most scenes.

Ironically, Thackeray, like Nair, spent his early childhood in India, and so was influenced by a different culture when writing his timeless tale.

What's more, the film doesn't suffer from feeling too much like a period piece, given that the character of Becky Sharp is very much a modern heroine who could just as easily exist in today's society.

It helps to provide audiences with an identifiable heroine, set against the backdrop of a classic story, which is made all the more memorable by the exemplary direction from Nair.

It is, in short, highly recommended.

 

 


 

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