Review by: Jack Foley | Rating:
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.