In Vanity Fair, Reese Witherspoon sets
her red, white and blonde roots aside to portray a brunette English
commoner in 19th-century Europe who charms and wiles her way up
the social ladder. Directed by Mira Nair, whose
previous credits include Salaam Bombay! and Monsoon
Wedding, the movie is awash with intense scenery and fantastic
costumes. However, the thick volume of a story, originally written
by William Makepeace Thackeray, is still a bit too heavy
even for a 137-minute-long film.
The plot, which spans nearly half a century, begins in London
in 1802 where we first meet a young and penniless Becky Sharp (Witherspoon),
evidently already familiar with the matters of money and sacrifice
through her dealings with the wealthy Marquess of Steyne (Byrne).
The movie then skips several years and cuts to Becky’s departure
from Miss Pinkerton’s academy for young ladies, accompanied
by her schoolmate Amelia Sedley (Garai). At this
point a parallel can be made with another 19th-century novel, Pride
And Prejudice, with Amelia to Jane, the sweet and innocent
ones, and Becky to Elizabeth, the sassy and spirited ones. As in
Jane Austen’s book, these two dissimilar
women also wish to improve their stations in life through advantageous
connections, attending various social events, and meeting handsome
aristocrats and soldiers.
However, the similarities end there. Amelia falls into an unrequited
love relationship with the pretentious George Osborne (Rhys
Meyers) and unintentionally begins to fall lower and lower
on the social ladder. Meanwhile Becky, with her engaging charm—consisting
mainly of toothy grins, sly glances, and suggestive conversation—begins
her career as a governess in the household of Sir Pitt Crawley (Hoskins).
It doesn’t take long before she partners herself with the
charming soldier Rawdon Crawley (Purefoy) and continues
her journey to the top. As one noblewoman exclaims scathingly about
Becky, “I thought her a mere social climber. I see now she’s
a mountaineer.” It’s dizzying to see the now-Mrs. Crawley
beguile her way through the prim and proper ranks of society and
how those around her react. She is both loved and despised, treated
with welcome and suspicion, but through it all the resourceful Becky
This period piece is said to be Thackeray’s perspective
on human folly, society, and colonialism. Indeed, the story weaves
in and out of the successes and mistakes of characters both rich
and poor, in England, Belgium, Germany, and India. Although the
focus of the film is Becky, peripheral stories involving Amelia,
a Captain Dobbins (Ifans) and George’s father
Mr. Osborne (Broadbent) complete Thackeray’s
picture of the intricacies of class struggle.
Thackeray, who spent his childhood in colonial India, makes mention
of it in his novel. Director Nair brings the references up a notch
by including several extensive sequences featuring Indian customs
and culture. Here on familiar territory, Nair overfills these scenes
with colors, jewels, and movement in a gorgeous display.
Watching the film, it is glaringly obvious that it has been adapted
from a previous work. Details are glazed over and explanations have
been omitted in the effort to keep the story moving along. As in
most adaptations, the writers have taken liberties to put their
own spin on the storyline, such as cutting out the importance of
Amelia’s brother Jos and tweaking the ending.
Of interesting note is that Witherspoon was actually pregnant with
her second child during filming, which coincided perfectly with
her portrayal of Becky’s pregnancy.