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Vanity Fair
Directed by Mira Nair
Starring Reese Witherspoon, James Purefoy, Romola Garai, Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, Gabriel Byrne, Jim Broadbent, Bob Hoskins, and Rhys Ifans.
Running Time: 137 minutes

Posted by Aaron West
August 29th, 2004

Is there such a thing as an unadaptable book? I wouldn't say so, but many have said that about William Thackeray's 900+ page epic novel, Vanity Fair. Many have argued that the plot is too convoluted and complicated to be presented in a short running time, which is why, until 2004, there have only been television miniseries adaptations. Not to mention, many feel that the cynical nature of the book would not be welcomed by mainstream viewers. Good points on both counts, but I firmly believe that Vanity Fair could be (or could have been) a tremendous film, only under different hands.

Vanity Fair is about Rebecca (or Becky) Sharp (Reese Witherspoon), and her climb up the social ladder. Born into poverty with a modest pedigree, Sharp doesn't have much to hope for. She is raised and educated in an orphanage, and has an inordinate talent for music and language, like her mother who was a French Opera singer. Forced to create her own future, she does so by impressing every person in which she encounters, hoping that somehow she will wind up marrying into stature and wealth. Alongside Becky is her dear friend Amelia (Romola Garai), who is infatuated with George Osborne (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), who is in turn entranced by Becky, while Dobbin (Rhys Ifans) longs to be with Amelia, and resents the way that George leads her on. Yes, complex, melodramatic, and that's not even the half of it. There's a lot of story here, a lot going on for one movie.

Much will be made about the performance of Reese Witherspoon in the lead. She held her own in Pleasantville; she dazzled in Election; then there was that Legally Blonde thing, which, umm, made a lot of money. Reese has established herself as a top leading lady, perhaps the top leading lady, but not yet as a serious actress. So there is a big question mark going into Vanity Fair as to how she would handle the role, and I'm afraid I can't give her too high, or too low marks. Her performance was merely average, which is still disappointing, considering the complexity of the role. We know she has the charisma to carry a movie, but can she act her way through the melodrama and immerse herself into the role. She does carry the movie; of that there is no doubt, as the entire first half is made much more pleasant and entertaining because of her legendary charisma. Along with the rest of the movie, however, she does fall apart in the second half. Not surprisingly, these are the key character scenes that define her character. She cannot juggle the emotional base that the role requires along with the necessary appeal, and thus doesn't sell either towards the end. We can only imagine what a stronger actress would have done with the role. Kate Winslet instantly springs to mind, and I think her presence itself could have saved the movie.

There are plenty of problems with the character of Becky Sharp herself, which have more to do with the adaptation itself. Thackeray's Becky Sharp was conniving, deceitful, emotionless, manipulative, and in a word, evil. Reese's Becky possesses some of these qualities, specifically the conniving and manipulative sense of the character, but loses a lot of her darker nature entirely. This makes the film a great deal lighter than a more faithful adaptation would, which might end up making the movie more palatable to mainstream audiences, but it lacks punch and meaning. In fact, when all is said and done, the viewer can't help but be confused by the choices Becky makes, because her actions are faithful to the book, but her motives are not. This is a major disappointment and in itself, it irreperably harms the movie.

During my screening, there was a somewhat elderly couple sitting near me who talked quietly about the movie to each other. Towards the end of the movie, I overheard the lady say "I can't figure out who is who." While I didn't have the same problem, I could understand how others might. The film has to cover a lot of ground, balance a lot of secondary characters and subplots, while still advance the primary narrative. At doing this, the movie falls flat on its face during the second half. It moves too fast and skips over too much time without finding its bearings again. There is nowhere to blame other than the writing staff, and from what I understand, it could have been worse. Experienced screenwriter Julian Fellows had to be called in late in pre-production to touch up a difficult script. I'm sure the final version is much cleaner than earlier drafts, but aside from hardly capturing the theme, it is still a poor adaptation at just chronicling the narrative. Such a large tale could have worked, but a great bit of the story would have to be re-imagined, so that all this time that passes in the character's lives was reduced in the interest of keeping the audience involved.

Vanity Fair is watchable thanks to some decent supporting performances. There are two in particular that are worth mentioning. One of which is expected, coming from Jim Broadbent, who always gives his best. The other is from Rhys Ifans, yes, the guy who usually plays a goofy character of sorts, and his stunning performance was hardly expected. His goofy nature does show through sometimes, if to a lesser extent than usual. His character, however, is easy to like, as he is admirable in motive, completely benevolent, but alas, can't seem to catch the eye of his girl. Ifans pulls off the nervousness and dedication remarkably well, showing plenty of potential for future larger roles when he is not sitting in a deckchair.

Finally, Mira Nair was not the problem with this picture. I would say she made it a lot better than it should have been. Visually, it was an engaging production, and Nair definitely brought some Eastern culture with her, which was very fitting and apparent at various points. She directed a losing cause, unfortunately, with some questionable casting, a lousy script, and perhaps an unnecessarily ambitious project. I hope she does continue directing in larger, American or British productions, as she definitely shows promise here. As for Vanity Fair, I recommend checking out the 1998 A&E miniseries instead and then maybe giving Nair's version a look on video, if that.

Score: 5/10