out of Five
Running time: 135
Beautifully acted and gorgeous to look at but Becky has been sweetened for mainstream consumption and the story suffers as a result.
In her previous film, Monsoon Wedding, director Mira Nair tackled issues of class and sexuality in modern day India. Here, she turns her attention to the same issues in 19th century England, by adapting William Makepeace Thackeray’s sprawling novel, Vanity Fair and making it unquestionably her own.
While the film is undeniably gorgeous to look at, Nair has unfortunately sacrificed some of the story elements that made the novel (and indeed the BBC TV series) so compelling, most notably the character of Becky herself.
Orphaned At A Young Age
Reese Witherspoon stars as Becky Sharp, the daughter of a starving English artist and a French chorus girl. Orphaned at a young age, Becky yearns for a more glamorous life and vows to conquer English society by any means necessary. She gets a job as a governess for Sir Pitt Crawley (Bob Hoskins) and marries the respectable Rawdon Crawley (James Purefoy), only to have him disinherited by his Aunt Mathilda (Eileen Atkins).
As their funds start to dwindle, Becky has to use all her wits to get by, even if it means a dangerous flirtation with the wealthy Marquess of Steyne (Gabriel Byrne).
Meanwhile, Becky’s childhood best friend, Amelia Sedley (Romola Garai)
marries vain, shallow George Osborne (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), unaware that Osborne’s friend Dobbin (Rhys Ifans) is carrying a torch for her.
Reese Witherspoon is superbly cast as Becky, investing the part with a fierce intelligence and an acute awareness of the power of her sexuality. She also completely nails the English accent; she’s much more convincing here than she was in The Importance of Being Earnest. She even gets to do a little Bollywood dance number in a skimpy outfit. (Even though this playful scene is blatantly shoe-horned in by Nair and doesn’t quite ring true, it’s still one of the film’s most enjoyable scenes).
Lost In Translation
Unfortunately, however, the complexities of Becky’s character have been lost in translation; in the novel (and in previous movies, as well as the excellent BBC TV adaptation Natasha Little), Becky is delightfully, deliciously amoral, constantly scheming with little thought for anyone but herself. She is, in short, an evil little bitch. By contrast, in Nair’s version, she’s shown to be the victim of circumstance and her love for Rawdon is never in any doubt.
The supporting cast are all excellent, particularly Rhys Ifans as the noble, good-hearted Dobbin and Bob Hoskins, who makes a memorably sleazy impression as Sir Pitt Crawley. Romola Garai is good too, proving once again that she was born to do costume drama, but special mention must go to Eileen Atkins, who steals every scene she’s in as the spiky, outspoken Aunt Mathilda. In a nice touch, Nair also casts Natasha Little (who played Becky in the BBC version) in a small role as Lady Jane Sheepshanks.
The film is beautifully shot, with sumptuous cinematography by Declan Quinn and Nair cleverly includes several scenes shot in India, although perhaps the elephant-riding finale goes a little too far.
In short, Vanity Fair is impressively orchestrated and never looks less than fabulous, but it doesn’t quite deliver the requisite punch. Witherspoon is wonderful, but you can’t help wondering how much better she would have been if she’d been allowed to really bare her teeth. Worth seeing, but not the classic it could have been.