A sumptuous adaptation of the novel helped or hurt by Reese Witherspoon as Becky.
By John DeSando, WCBE's "It's Movie Time"
From Thackeray in early 19th century England to Trollope in the late, British novelists have analyzed the class system sometimes from the vantage point of the social climber journeying from working and middle classes to upper middle and perhaps the upper classes. In Thackeray's "Vanity Fair," Becky Sharp makes not a thoroughly successful journey depending on how much you believe a human should give up in order to be socially esteemed. Director Mira Nair ("Monsoon Wedding") has a sumptuous adaptation of the novel helped or hurt by Reese Witherspoon as Becky, depending on your perception of the actress and the role she plays.
Witherspoon, who played white trash rising in "Sweet Home Alabama" (2002), is just right when she is a working class daughter climbing (described in the film as more a "mountaineer") because of her facility for language, her charm, and her beauty, all three seemingly in short supply in the maidens of the houses we see. When she makes her place more or less permanent, Witherspoon lacks the spark of her earlier self, possibly bringing too much innocence to a character never mistaken for na?ve.
But, then, social climbing is tough stuff, for society ladies are not going to accept an upstart anyway. As the shadowy and powerful Marquis Steyne, Gabriel Byrne tells Becky that the first time she goes through the door of the drawing room, she will have no friends. Byrne does the best job of all the secondary characters, even better than Jim Broadbent as the merchant parvenu, Mr. Osborne. Byrne's Marquis is aloof and dangerous because of his wealth, dark good looks, and ironic understanding of the hollow socialites.
Governess Jane Eyre, from the splendid Charlotte Bronte novel of the same name, eventually marries the maimed and poor Lord Rochester, an evening out of things so to speak. Becky does not suffer Jane's serious physical trials nor does she share her virtue or marry a Byronic lord. Witherspoon portrays her Becky with such lack of guile and rough edge that any contrast with Jane is fruitless.
As might be expected from Nair, the sets and costumes are glamorous or gray, depending on the class. Her eye for period detail is so good that when the wealthy upper class is not as rich as they seem, the paint on the mansion is flaking and the clothing frayed. In a wholly different scenario, The Battle of Waterloo, Nair again is the queen of detail such as bodies being believably picked over by crows and scavengers.
Thackeray, always aware of social imbalance, was able to view the aristocracy ironically with both attraction and repulsion. His advice in "Punch" in 1849 for all men to live according to their degree is mirrored in the vagaries of Becky's achievements and failures. Anthony Trollope's attitude that social climbers who lack proper qualifications for social movement and seek higher position should be punished for their ambition is the very heart of "Vanity Fair" and its heroine.
Now let's find a worthy actress to play Becky, but not Meg Ryan, please. She's too old and does a passable Reese Witherspoon imitation already.
John DeSando teaches film at Franklin University and co-hosts WCBE's "It's Movie Time," which can be heard streaming at www.wcbe.org Fridays at 3:01 pm and 8:01 pm. Contact him at JDeSando@Columbus.RR.com.