Our first peek into the world of this film is a peacock feather, and it sets the stage both visually and metaphorically for a colorful story about a woman who uses her allure to get what she wants. Thackeray’s Vanity Fair is provocatively subtitled “A Novel without a Hero.” It is the story of two young women, one rich, one poor, both looking for happiness in an era when people were supposed to take what they were given without trying for more. And true to his word, Thackeray does not give us the usual character arcs — it’s not about redemption or consequences or lessons learned. It is an unsentimental tale of foolish, snobbish, and greedy people and their efforts to get what they think will make them happy: money, social position, love.
Director Mira Nair (Monsoon Wedding) has made his story into a gorgeously vibrant film, all jewel-like colors and swirling fabrics. As one might expect in an era where we applaud those who seek happiness but and applaud even harder for those who grab it, the movie even has something resembling a hero.
That would be Reese Witherspoon as Becky Sharp, a poor girl who schemes to improve her lot in life. Witherspoon is, as ever, utterly delectable and so filled with spirit, fun, and charm that it is impossible not to root for her, especially in contrast with her friend Amelia (Romola Garai), a wilted flower so dim that she falls for a bounder instead of the honorable admirer who is devoted to her.
Becky, the daughter of an artist, could drive a bargain worthy of her name even as a very young girl. Both of her parents die when she is very young and she is sent to a boarding school, because they can get more work out of her in exchange for tuition than they could from a scullery maid they would have to pay. She has only one friend in the school, Amelia, and as they leave together, Amelia to return home and Becky to seek her fortune, Becky takes the dictionary she has been given by the headmistress and tosses it out the window of the carriage. She does not need anyone else to tell her what things mean.
Becky is set to become a governess but she sees one other option. Perhaps she could capture the heart and bank account of a gentleman. She tries first for Amelia’s portly brother, visiting from India. She is successful with him, but not his family, who are quite firm about his marrying someone of his own class and net worth. She becomes governess in the household of the titled but crass and slovenly Sir Pitt Crawley (Bob Hoskins). There are two sons by the first wife, a dashing gambler (James Purefoy) who is the favorite of the spinster aunt who controls the family fortune (the magnificently acerbic Eileen Atkins) and a prig. Becky takes a chance on getting everything — love, money, and a position in society — by marrying the gambler, but they are disinherited.
Meanwhile, Amelia’s family has lost their fortune and Amelia has married George (Jonathan Rhys Meyers of Bend it Like Beckham). She adores him so wholeheartedly that she cannot see how selfish and dishonest he is. Both women become pregnant and follow their husbands, who are on their way to fight in the battle of Waterloo. And the story is just getting started.
Witherspoon’s success as Becky is in a way the movie’s biggest weakness. Witherspoon takes on the movie the way Becky takes on the world, with oceans of sheer star quality to dazzle and beguile. Resistance is futile. But it throws the balance of the movie out of whack. Amelia, instead of counterpoint, just seems a droop by comparison, tiresome in her inability to see George’s weakness or the way that his best friend loves her. Nair just doesn’t have the heart to let us dislike Becky, even when it would give the story more substance. So, instead of a thoughtful depiction of the strictures of society and the compromises made to adapt to or surmount them, all we get is something of a romp.
There’s a lot to look at, though. Nair has grabbed onto the book’s references to colonial India to provide an excuse for great swaths of sumptuous color and pagentry, even a Bollywood-style musical number. Even when the characters seem inconsistent and the direction of the story seems to falter, there is so much to see that even at two and a half hours, it is a splendid thing to see.
Parents should know that the movie has war violence, including a battlefield covered with dead bodies. Characters make comments reflecting the bigotry of the era. There are sexual references and situations and there is brief non-sexual nudity.
Families who see this movie should talk about the priorities and choices of the characters, especially Becky, Amelia, and Dobbin. What will happen to Becky next? Thackeray ends the book by saying, “which of us is happy in this world? Which of us has his desire? or, having it, is satisfied?” How would you answer those questions with regard to the characters in the story?
Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy the Oscar-winning Tom Jones. Similar adaptations of classic novels about women struggling with the limited options available to them include Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth and The Age of Innocence, Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, and Henry James’ Portrait of a Lady and Daisy Miller. They might also want to try reading the book and research its author, who was better at achieving social and financial success through his abilities rather than his connections than Becky Sharp was.