The 19th century created an almost inexhaustible supply of literary works ripe for cinematic translation. Great Expectations, Jane Eyre, The Phantom of the Opera, the entire Jane Austen canon ... all lend themselves to the kind of opulent costume drama or star-studded recreation Hollywood can't resist. At a certain point, however, the well starts to run dry.
I'm not saying that William Makepeace Thackeray's Vanity Fair isn't worthy of making the jump to the big screen. All I'm saying is that I never got more than four pages into the book.
Unfortunately I didn't have that luxury with the DVD. The responsibility of reviewing it meant seeing it through to the bitter, utterly contrived end. Reese Witherspoon plays Becky Sharp, an orphan-turned-governess who uses her beauty and considerable street smarts to become the toast of English society. While Thackeray's novel was meant to be a scathing satire on English aristocracy, director Mira Nair (Monsoon Wedding) emphasizes the romantic elements of the plot -- namely how any man who crosses Becky's path can't help but fall in love with her.
Witherspoon is a competent actress, and she does her best here, but the dirty little secret of Vanity Fair is that her character is just not very likeable. Like Scarlett O'Hara, she's conniving, flirtatious and ambitious. Unlike Scarlett O'Hara, however, she really has nothing to endure. As a governess, Becky wanders around in brightly colored silks when in reality, most governesses of the time were dressed like shadows (to emphasize their poverty and remain unthreatening to the lady of the house). Even when she follows her soldier husband to France during the Napoleonic wars, Becky treats the entire episode as little more than a chance to suck up to the other English noblewomen.
Nair infuses the whole proceeding with Indian exotica -- at times welcome (Vanity Fair is nothing if not exotic) and at others, absurd (when Becky performs an elaborate quasi-Indian dance for a wealthy patron). Despite the potentially epic scope of the narrative, the movie feels more like it just drags (clocking in at a wearying 137 minutes). In the end, Vanity Fair is just what the title implies -- an exhibition of affectation.
Publication date: 2/24/05