Many hated Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of William Makepeace Thackeray’s Barry Lyndon, denouncing it as cold and misanthropic. Sorry, folks, but that’s the way Kubrick saw things, and so did Thackeray. Had Kubrick lived, he might have made an equally unpopular masterpiece of Thackeray’s magnum opus, Vanity Fair. Instead, Mira Nair has translated this dyspeptic and delightful epic of manners good and bad into a zesty, Bollywood-ized and bowdlerized costume comedy that ultimately affirms (and I can hear rolling from two graves) true love and family values.
No doubt it will find a broader audience than did Kubrick’s film, or Nair’s last effort, for that matter — the more festive and surprisingly darker Monsoon Wedding. Some might be put off by Nair’s indulgence in Indian spectacle and spice: near the end, the redoubtable Becky Sharp (Reese Witherspoon), in lieu of the relatively staid game of charades staged in the novel, puts on a show worthy of the late ’80s Madonna. The Vauxhall of the Regency period turns out to be a three-ring circus worthy of the London of the Swinging ’60s. Nair takes poetic license with the setting and the spirit of the book, and instills more life into the film’s set design than into its soul.
She’s pretty faithful to the book’s letter, however. Credit her and her screenwriting team with paring 800 pages to a little more than two hours of screen time (though Rouben Mamoulian’s Becky Sharp, starring Miriam Hopkins, managed to get it down to 87 minutes in 1935, and a 1932 version with Myrna Loy clocked in at 78). In brisk succession, best friends Becky and Amelia Sedley (Romola Garai) graduate from Miss Pinkerton’s finishing school, the former still a little rough around the edges. An orphan from the lowest classes, Becky is bright, beautiful, ruthless, and ambitious. Amelia, on the other hand, comes from money and rank; she’s pretty, sweet, naive, and spineless. When Amelia invites Becky to stay at her family’s Russell Square household, Becky at once sets her sights on Amelia’s blubbery brother, Jos (Tony Maudsley), a would-be East India Company nabob and an easy mark for the budding adventuress. Or so she thinks.
But Becky comes on a bit too strong, scaring Jos back to Bengal and earning for herself a trip to Queen’s Crawley. Serving crapulous Sir Pitt Crawley (Bob Hoskins), Becky finds fertile soil for her wiles. With narrative efficiency and sumptuous style, Nair spins out Becky’s intrigues until she snares Sir Pitt’s dissipated eldest son, Captain Rawdon Crawley (James Purefoy). With Becky’s new status, she returns to favor with the Sedleys. Amelia, meanwhile, endures a more virtuous melodrama in her ill-starred love of the vain Captain George Osborne (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), abetted by George’s best friend, the stalwart Captain Dobbin (Rhys Ifans), and bitterly opposed by George’s tyrannical father (Jim Broadbent).
It’s a lot to keep track of, especially if you throw in the Napoleonic Wars and the Battle of Waterloo. Indeed, implicit in Thackeray’s irony is the suggestion that had Becky been born a man, she might have been a match for Bonaparte, her knavery equally worshiped. As such, Thackeray is perhaps more of feminist than Nair, at least in this movie.
The failure lies largely in the casting. Witherspoon could have injected the proper venom into Becky; her brilliant performance as Tracy Flick in 1999’s Election attests to that. Nair, though, hasn’t the baleful eye of an Alexander Payne. Witherspoon’s belly-baring oriental costume in the "charade" scene notwithstanding, she proves to be just a misunderstood softy all along. As for the film’s overt goody-goodies, Garai looks physically uncomfortable as Amelia, and Ifans’s simpering Dobbin made me long for the obnoxious ass he played in Notting Hill.
Comparing an adaptation with its source is a dicey proposal. But I suspect even those who have not read the book might feel that something is missing in Vanity Fair, stuffed though it is with color, life, mud, and mischief. Perhaps it’s a lack of social or historical context — an unusual lapse for Nair, who first made her name with Salaam Bombay! She has little to say about the British exploitation of India of the time, though she does showcase the subcontinent’s music and regalia.
Thackeray compared his novel to a puppet show, the players’ passions, dreams, and desires as ephemeral and vain. By the end of the book, that theme is confirmed, but the puppets prove human and their fates tragic. In Nair’s version, diverting as it is, the puppets remain, Thackeray’s blunt truth becomes a platitude, and the glorious vanity of it all is no more than a void.
Issue Date: September 3 - 9, 2004
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