Vanity Fair (2004): Mira Nair’s Version of Thackeray, Starring Reese Witherspoon

There hasn’t been a successful American screen version of Vanity Fair, William Makepeace Thackeray’s classic novel, and Mira Nair’s new adaptation does not improve that record. Though vivid and colorful (as most of Nair’s films are), this Vanity Fair is marred by narrative and structural problems, and is further impaired by Reese Witherspoon’s uneven performance in the lead. The new version represents a peculiar hybrid: an art film based on a respectable literary source, made with an eye toward the mass public by cashing in on Witherspoon’s star power.

Nair deserves credit for not making a film in the Merchant-Ivory style: literary costume pictures that are too restrained and tasteful to generate genuinely cinematic interest. Tackling her biggest (in budget and scope) film to date, Nair has tried to make a personal movie that also will appeal to the multiplex audience. However, despite honorable effort, her movie is not successful in bringing a fresh, relevant perspective to its central character, Becky Sharp. Vanity Fair is episodic rather than dramatic, visually colorful rather than emotionally engaging.

One of the greatest female characters ever created, Becky is a highly calculating woman. From an early age, as the daughter of a starving English artist and a French chorus girl, she yearns for a more glamorous life than her birthright allows. With strength and determination, Becky resolves to conquer English society by any means possible, deploying wit, guile, beauty, and sexuality.

Becky’s ascension to high-society begins with her employment as governess to the daughters of Sir Pitt Crawley (Bob Hoskins). While winning over the children and their rich spinsterish aunt Matilda (Eileen Atkins), she knows that to achieve her goal she needs to move to London. Opportunity knocks, when Matilda invites her to the city, where she is reunited with her friend Amelia (Romola Garai), a descendant of a different class who doesn’t share Becky’s brazen ambitions.

Becky marries secretly Sir Pitt’s son, the dashing heir Rawdon Crawley (James Purefoy), but when Matilda discovers their union, she casts out the newlyweds. Rawdon goes to combat when Napoleon invades Europe, leaving a pregnant Becky behind. Reunited with Rawdon, Becky gives birth to a boy, but post-war money and comforts are sparse, and survival becomes even tougher due to Rawdon’s gambling. More intent than ever before on gaining acceptance into London society, Becky finds a new patron, Steyne (Gabriel Byrne).

Thackeray has created an archetypal heroine, a flesh-and-blood woman who recognizes that there’s a better life to live, but society’s restrictive conventions don’t allow for social mobility. In his novel, he tackles spiritual questions that are timeless–the nature of dreams, the price paid for achieving happiness, the vanity of life–that the filmmakers don’t succeed in making relevant to today’s viewers.

Trying to compress a sprawling novel that was written as a popular serial into the length of a feature film, this Vanity Fair is too fragmented, failing to achieve dramatic continuity or direct involvement in the heroine’s (mis)adventures. It’s a movie of scenes, not a unified whole, in which only occasionally do Thackeray’s rich and comic gallery of characters come to life.

The challenge of any adaptation is knowing what to leave in and what to leave out. This is especially so with a novel as long and as admired as Vanity Fair. In this version, co-written by Matthew Faulk, Mark Skeet, and Julian Fellowes, all the key moments are present, but the story lacks both irony and meaning for a modern audience. In the hopeless task of adapting a minutely-researched 900-page novel into a trendy movie, Vanity Fair races along from one unavoidable adventure or catastrophe to another. The film comes across as a series of decorous set pieces, some more engaging than others, with a plot of no overwhelming interest.

Nair’s previous film, the far superior Monsoon Wedding, was lavish, fast-moving, colorful, and intriguing in the ways it integrated its characters and multiple storylines. Like that film, Vanity Fair benefits from Nair outsider’s status as an Indian-born, Harvard-educated filmmaker. Taking a cue from the fact that Thackeray himself spent his early childhood in Calcutta, Nair is particularly attentive to the way Indian culture began to influence England in the early nineteenth century. In her vision, Becky becomes a symbol of all outsiders who’re denied their proper place in society due to ascribed statuses such as the class into which they’re born.

Becky is an admittedly a tough, demanding role to play. Neither Myrna Loy in the 1932 version, nor Miriam Hopkins in the 1935, were convincing; Loy underacted and Hopkins was over-the-top, acting as a predator.

At 28, Witherspoon is not too young to play a part that spans 20 years, but she is too light and irresistibly charming. Conceptually, Witherspoon perceives Becky as a feisty modern heroine, stuck in the wrong time and place. But she is too cute, even kittenish, in the first part of the film, and not compelling enough in the second, when her character, now in her late thirties, is alienated from her son and disillusioned; it doesn’t help that for whatever reason Witherspoon doesn’t age at all on screen.

Becky Sharp has entered into our consciousness as the epitome of a self-seeking woman who knows how to manipulate men and society. She lives in a context where people buy their way into society and then fall from grace when they lose money. Becky figures out how to negotiate her way through society. Each of Becky’s successes draws on her own merits and skills, a modern idea for a period story. A resilient survivor, Becky is ambitious, practical and hard headed. But the bottom line is that Becky is not a likable character. She’s poor but pretentious, genteel but on the make, charming but void of ethics.

Nair and Witherspoon obviously didn’t want Becky to become an unsympathetic character, opting instead for a middle-of-the-road approach that softens Becky’s coldly manipulative personality. This is not the story of Becky’s rise and fall, but the story of her rise and fall and rise. Indeed, purists will be upset by the altered resolution, which further dilutes the novel’s sharp wit and criticism. Thackeray ends his serial with Becky as a young widow, whereas in Nair’s film, she runs off to India to wed Jos, Amelia’s brother. If the film’s own sense of purpose were clearer, comparisons with the book might have been invidious, unfair, and even unnecessary, but this is not the case.

The film’s most effective segments are those depicting Becky and Rawdon’s love story. Purefoy, a newcomer with an extraordinary screen presence, shows the swagger, humor, and dashing quality of a soldier who loves war and is undone by love and gambling.

The previous American versions were substantially shorter than the new one, which clocks in at 140 minutes. However, what’s missing from Nair’s film is a sharper perspective, a greater distance from the character, a deeper ambiguity in lieu of sympathetic approach. The only element that provides continuity in this Vanity Fair is Becky’s personal trunk, which she carries with gusto from one destination to another, and that’s not enough.