Vanity Fair

Vanity Fair


Reviewed by: Angus Wolfe Murray

Becky Sharp has become an icon of feminism and quite rightly. Raised in an orphanage at the beginning of the 19th century, she understood the rules of advancement in an intensely snobbish society, based on old families and new money, where marriage and inheritance could make or break a girl. Since inheritance was never going to come her way - her father died an impoverished (and rather good) artist and her mother was an "operatic dancer" in Paris - she kept her options open before making the social faux pas of marrying for love.

Thackeray's novel, like so many of the period, is cleverly constructed, with sub plots sprouting in every cranny and a cast of beautiful eccentrics, honourable soldiers, bitchy matrons, greedy merchants and arrogant aristocrats. In the tradition of costume drama, where perception disguises truth and wit oils the wheels of corruption, Mira Nair's film is so much more than a collection of fabulous balls and pretty pictures. In Reese Witherspoon, she has an actress who personifies an independence of will that suits Becky's character like a tight corset. As for the accent, it is plum perfect.

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This is the period before Bonaparte's return from exile and the bloody battle of Waterloo when the British felt secure in their infinite superiority. Peerages could be bought and impoverished baronets survive on the dubious value of their once good name. Sons of the nobility entered respectable regiments as a matter of course and the old school network was the only one in town, bolstered by the progeny of the neuveau riche, who slipped effortlessly into the fabric of society, marked by the stain of "trade."

Becky accepts the injustice and humiliation of being from a nameless family and is never cowed by it. She leaves the orphanage to become a governess and ends up entangled in the shenanigans surrounding a rich spinster (Eileen Atkins), the handsome son (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) of a wealthy merchant (Jim Broadbent), the younger offspring (James Purefoy) of landless gentry and a cynically cruel marquis (Gabriel Byrne), intent on having his way with her.

The film looks magnificent and the performances, particularly from Witherspoon and Atkins, are exemplary. Rhys Ifans, as the upright cavalry officer, who secretly adores Amelia (Romola Garai), Becky's friend, is cast against type. He seems destined for the emotional grindstone.

The script, partly written by Julian Fellowes of Gosford Park fame, is eloquent and cutting. "I thought her a mere social climber," comes a comment on Becky from one the drawing room habitues, "Now I see she is a mountaineer." And as news from the continent appears ever more threatening, the ladies steel themselves for sacrifice. "Men need war like the earth needs turning".

As a tale of chance and circumstance, with an admirable heroine who relies neither on charity, nor sexual favours ("Only two men will enter my bedroom - my husband and the doctor"), Nair's film is less vain than exquisitely fair.

Reviewed on: 16 Jan 2005
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The gallant adventures of a social mountaineer in the drawing rooms of 18th century England.
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Director: Mira Nair

Writer: Julian Fellowes, Matthew Faulk, Mark Skeet, based on the novel by William Makepeace Thackeray

Starring: Reese Witherspoon, Eileen Atkins, James Purefoy, Gabriel Byrne, Rhys Ifans, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Romola Garai, Jim Broadbent, Bob Hoskins, Ruth Sheen, Tony Maudsley, Douglas Hodge, Meg Wynn Owen, Geraldine McEwan, Kelly Hunter, Natasha Little

Year: 2004

Runtime: 137 minutes

BBFC: PG - Parental Guidance

Country: UK/US


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