Movies — Vanity Fair (PG-13)

Reese Witherspoon vows, as God is her witness, to never be hungry or snubbed again in Vanity Fair, a much-condensed adaptation of the William Thackeray novel.

Much much condensed. Seriously, kids, if this movie was going to be your way of getting through Brit Lit of the 18th century without cracking the Thackeray novel, you’ve got some problems. I doubt you could pass a midterm with information this scanty.

On the other hand, I now remember how I passed an English class by scanning, without actually reading, Thackeray’s mid-century novel on money, society and getting ahead. I filled in the considerable blank spots in my Becky Sharp knowledge—our climbing little heroine passes through some three decades of events—with Scarlett O’Hara-based guesstimation. Written about 80 years later, Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind gives us a Becky who starts out on the top of the social strata, loses everything and must claw her way back up. Though, and how very American, really, the English lass Becky wants position and entrée to high society while Southern belle Scarlett just wants to make a big pile of cash.

Cinematically, the girls share some dialogue, a wartime mad dash through a retreating citizenry and a marching army, a long shot of the battlefield and a taste for ostentatious behavior at balls and other public gatherings.

Becky (Witherspoon) starts her life as the daughter of painter Frank Sharp and a never-seen mother who was a Parisian opera singer. On the occasion of his death, she’s sent to a girls’ school where, in addition to doing quite a bit of housework, she learns enough to get her hired as a governess by the Crawley family. On her way to her first job, she spends some time with her one and only friend Amelia (Romola Garai) and her family. The family is rather suspicious of Becky, who clearly has designs on Amelia’s brother Joseph (Tony Maudsley). Joseph is flattered and even quite interested in Becky, but he’s convinced not to make any moves by George (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers), the sullen new-money dandy engaged to Amelia as part of a deal arranged by his social-climbing father.

With Becky’s first chance at a profitable match thwarted, she heads to the Crawley estate, where she is governess to the family’s children and helps the crumbling manor and its shabby master Pitt (Bob Hoskins) ready for a visit by his quite wealthy spinster sister Matilde (Eileen Atkins). Matilde takes a liking to Becky and brings her to London as an amusement. The household already includes one Matilde toady—Rawdon Crawley (James Purefoy), Pitt’s second son and the one less likely to inherit anything. His chances for an inheritance decrease even further after Becky and Rawdon run away to get married, thus setting them on a course of financial near-ruin for the next dozen or so years of their shaky marriage.

Becky gets her chance at high society again when Lord Steyne (Gabriel Byrne), an avid collector of her father’s works, takes an interest in Becky. He helps her hold off creditors and makes his wife introduce her to all the right people. Steyne, as we learn quickly, is not just a nice guy and clearly he expects a little something something in return.

There are other plots and subplots but honestly why get into them even briefly? The movie has edited many of these plot threads into mere fragments that don’t add color so much as they add a layer of confusion. I found myself wondering about a character, only to watch him disappear for a hour or more.

Vanity Fair isn’t, as adaptations of large sprawling British novels go, a bad one. It just isn’t particularly dynamic. Becky Sharp isn’t a fascinating upstart who bucks society’s rules—she’s just a sassy girl who’s trying to fit in with the popular girls. The movie trades a character of unrelenting drive for a wannabe with a soft heart. And, as any five minutes of soap opera viewing will demonstrate, likeable does not usually equal interesting.

Add to this dulling of Miss Sharp the stilted Gone With the Wind-isms that feel as faded and trite as Scarlett’s sunrise speech about her willingness to lie, cheat, steal or kill to get back to eating high off the hog. In fact, not only the 1939 Gone with the Wind but the 1936 Vanity Fair both seem more daring in their willingness to let their heroines be harsh, steely-eyed and downright bitchy.

After all, without the rapier edge, what’s the point of being Sharp?

- Amy Diaz 

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