Our culture of celebrity is such that, during the opening scenes of Vanity Fair, Mira Nair’s exuberant screen adaptation of William Makepeace Thackeray’s darkly satirical novel, I found myself thinking of Vanity Fair the magazine—specifically, the September issue’s cover story on the movie’s star, Reese Witherspoon. There we learn that, though she brings home a $15 million paycheck, she still looks great and makes time for the children.
What woman wouldn’t want to have it all? Thackeray’s heroine, Becky Sharp (played by Witherspoon), certainly does. She rises from obscure and shady origins through early-19th-century polite society to conquer the hearts and wallets of more than one bourgeois or aristocratic gentleman. Toying with the limits of propriety, she reveals the social order’s hollowness while reveling in its splendors.
One might have imagined an updated Vanity Fair (à la Clueless) unfolding between Park Avenue salons and the carefully manicured lawns of East Hampton. Instead, with a nod to scholar Edward Said, the Indian-born Nair keeps the novel’s time frame but highlights the role Thackeray has reserved for Britain’s colonies, where his characters keep flitting to amass vast quantities of wealth or escape romantic disappointment. The colonial presence is felt everywhere in Nair’s movie—from the cashmeres thrown over the ladies’ shoulders in Hyde Park to the servants in their drawing rooms. Amid the film’s gorgeous, sensual riot of movement and color, this subtly underscores a deeper point—that the vast edifice of British Empire hierarchy rested upon a lie and an illusion.
As the movie opens, orphaned Becky leaves the loathed Miss Pinkerton’s Academy in the company of her only friend, gentle, highborn Amelia Sedley (Romola Garai), to take her new position as governess in the country estate of the eccentric Sir Pitt Crawley (Bob Hoskins). From that humble post she launches her assault, enchanting by turns the baronet; his wealthy, city-dwelling, spinster sister (Eileen Atkins); and his feckless second son, a military man played by the magnetic James Purefoy.
And that’s only the beginning. Thackeray’s tome runs to some 700-plus pages, with an unwieldy cast (for the most part, ably embodied here) and epic scope that moves from a young girl’s love letters to the Battle of Waterloo. (The corpse-strewn battlefield is one of the most striking set pieces.) For the film, a team of screenwriters had condensed it into a hectic 140 minutes. But the pacing feels choppy, and the characters’ emotions are sometimes too sudden to be believable. (One exception is Rhys Ifans, affecting as Amelia’s long-suffering and neglected suitor.)
Witherspoon’s Sharp seems tailored to fit contemporary feminism’s Third Wave—a can-do heroine of unstoppable ambition. It’s a role that’s worked for her before (the Tracy Flick of Election), though here her ability to play herself seems a jarring limitation. She’s best with Becky mid-career. When the story turns darker, she’s all New World—she can’t do decadent. Thackeray doesn’t let us resolve our feelings about Becky too easily; we read about her exploits with a kind of abject fascination. But Witherspoon can’t risk her likability. At the end of Nair’s film, we cheer her; Thackeray’s novel leaves behind a taste of ashes, and a deeper memory.