A review of “Vanity Fair” by Jeanne Aufmuth

 

Stars: ***

Rating: PG-13 for adult situations

Run Time: 2 hours, 20 minutes

 

 

Director Mira Nair became something of a household name with the enormous critical success of Monsoon Wedding.  Has success gone to her head?

Absolutely not.  Nair’s keen eye and artistic flair are abundantly evident in this lush screen adaptation of William Makepeace Thackeray’s drawing-room drama of the same name.

Reese Witherspoon headlines as Becky Sharp, a cunning governess who claws her way into the upper-crust society of 19th century London.  Becky works her flattering lashes on the men and women surrounding her and ultimately lands herself a husband, the dashing Rawdon Crawley (James Purefoy).

Crawley comes from an aristocratic family but finds himself as poor as a church mouse when his filthy rich aunt dies and cuts him out of her will.  Ever the opportunist, Becky endeavors to make lemonade out of lemons, cultivating an eyebrow-raising friendship with her wealthy neighbor the Marquess of Steyne (Gabriel Byrne), much to her husband’s evident dismay.

Witherspoon is an enigma – her Becky Sharp clearly delighting in the sights and sounds of London while honing her not-so-subtle social climbing skills to mountaineering status.  The film’s most glaring flaw is Becky’s murky agenda; on one hand the contemporary and sympathetic go-to girl (think Legally Blonde’s Elle Woods) and on the other the uber-ambitious schemer (think Election’s Tracy Flick) that Thackeray intended.

Thackeray’s prose is sheer poetry (“He has the charm of an undertaker and the humor of a corpse!”) and well-suited to its talented cast.  And what a cast it is; accomplished Brits Jim Broadbent, Geraldine McEwan and Bob Hoskins rubbing elbows with Jonathan Rhys-Meyers and Rhys Ifans among others. Stunning costume design and swelling score are pleasures, though this juicy period soap overstays its welcome past the two-hour mark.