There's something about books and movies with titles like Vanity Fair: A Novel Without a Hero that makes my brain turn to wood. Lavish period productions of massive novels about plucky souls scaling the class system while the string section waxes rhapsodic with bows dipping in maple syrup - just describing it makes my brain slow down and look for a spot to curl up under for a nap.
Jonathan Rhys-Meyers and Reese Witherspoon in 'Vanity Fair'
But somehow - amazingly - filmmaker Mira Nair's take on the 900-page William Makepeace Thackeray book keeps me engaged, entertained and awake. Well, mostly. There are a few sections of Vanity Fair that lag a bit, but none of those parts last too long. Some characters and subplots get the short shrift, and the film has a herky-jerky quality, but I found that easy to take.
The main thing is this: Nair, best known in the States for the richly textured comedy/drama Monsoon Wedding, has the audacity to take Thackeray's novel and make it her own. She focuses on just a few characters, leaving the rest as rough sketches. I had no problem with that, as most of those characters served as worker bees in maintaining the horrendous class structure of the 19th century setting.
She also alters some plot points, which may upset purists, and she takes numerous opportunities to lively up the proceedings by adding big dashes of Indian culture. Think I'm kidding? There are two Indian song and dance numbers and the fate of one major player changes as the person exits the story by touring India with a loved one.
The film has energy, real vitality, which should come as little surprise for a production with Reese Witherspoon in the lead role. Witherspoon, so good as the ruthless high school class president candidate in Election, is at her best as a predator, with her pointy little chin jutting out like a shark's fin. She nails her role easily, social climbing and scheming like wild while still remaining sympathetic.
(SPOILER ALERT: THE FOLLOWING REVEALS PLOT POINTS) Witherspoon plays Becky Sharp, graduating from Miss Pinkerton's school for young ladies along with her friend, Amelia Sedley (Romola Garai). Amelia comes from a wealthy family and has many futures from which to choose. Becky, however, is the orphaned daughter of a destitute painter; she will need to plan. After visiting with the Sedleys, she will work as governess for one Sir Pitt Crawley (Bob Hoskins, clearly having a wonderful time) and try to win the heart of Amelia's awkward brother, Jos (Tony Mandley). Meanwhile, Amelia will woo Army Capt. George Osborne (Jonathan Rhys Meyers).
The plans fail, but Becky soon comes up with another. Her aspirations and determination are best described when one of the characters says, "I thought she was a social climber, but now I see she's a mountaineer."
Eventually, Becky marries Rawdon Crawley (James Purefoy), the second son of Sir Pitt. Rawdon cuts a dashing figure, but self-absorption and a habitual gambling problem make him less than a great choice. Worse, the union so angers Matilde (Eileen Atkins), Sir Pitt's spinster sister and, up to then, Becky's unyielding champion, that she cuts him (and Becky with him) out of the family.
George finally marries Amelia, but only to piss off his father (Jim Broadbent). And then the pregnancies happen. (END SPOILERS)
Most of the performances are at least solid, except for James Purefoy, whose characterization of Rawley is thinner than it should be. As always, Jim Broadbent is top drawer, making the most of his limited screen time. Gabriel Byrne is powerful as the Marquess of Steyne, a patron who affects Becky's life dramatically, once during her childhood, and again when she is fully grown. Readers of the original novel will note a change in the pair's relationship between the book and the movie.
Rhys Ifans continues to show new sides of his skills as a lovelorn suitor of Amelia. Bob Hoskins dives into the role of the grimy Sir Pitt Crawley with great enthusiasm and adds juice to the proceedings. And Eileen Atkins deserves a big round of applause as nasty old Aunt Eileen, one of the most enjoyable characters in the film - for a while.
Which brings us back to Reese Witherspoon, who has a real gift for finding films that best showcase her unique talents.
Ultimately, though, the real star here is Mira Nair, for her willingness to take the production her own way and her ability to do it right.