Home > Film, Literature, Reviews > Film Review: Vanity Fair (2004)

Film Review: Vanity Fair (2004)

Vanity Fair (2004; Directed by Mira Nair)

Indian-American director Mira Nair’s handsome adaptation of William Makepeace Thackeray’s sprawling, skewering satire of upper-class British society opens, not inappropriately, with oblique close-ups of a peacock. The flightless bird that displays its ostentatious plumage to impress the opposite sex is a self-evident summation of the aims of the human peacocks that populate the Regency England social milieu of the film.

Nair’s version of the story, penned for the screen by Downton Abbey doyen Julian Fellowes among others, mostly follows Thackeray’s text with some key nuances and compromising departures along the way. The core plot is the same, following the rise of the clever, penniless artist’s daughter Rebecca Sharp (Reese Witherspoon) from a governess position at the dilapidated estate of the crude baronet Sir Pitt Crawley (Bob Hoskins) into a marriage with his bluff, soldier-gambler son Rawdon (James Purefoy). She ascends to the upper crust’s highest echelons despite the disinherited Rawdon’s lack of an income, impressing the imperious Lord Steyne (Gabrie Byrne) and even King George IV himself before a scandal humbles her and sunders her from Rawdon and from polite society.

A contrasting and intermingling storyline tracks the progress of Becky’s school friend Amelia Sedley (Romola Garai), who marries her childhood sweetheart George Osbourne (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers) against the wishes of his forbidding merchant father (Jim Broadbent), who likewise disinherits his son, who dies on the fateful field of Waterloo in 1815. Both the settled, nurturing Amelia and the calculating surivor Becky will be laid low by whims and norms of the titular conception of their society’s superficial standards. But they will both also find companionship by the end, Amelia with George’s loyal and decent friend William Dobbin (Rhys Ifans) and Becky in faraway India with Amelia’s foppish nabob brother Joseph (Tony Maudsley).

I’ve previously laid out a more detailed analysis of the themes and implications of Thackeray’s novel and won’t provide a similar one for Nair’s film. It may not be surprising to learn that in the hands of Nair, Fellowes and Witherspoon, Becky Sharp is moulded into a far more sympathetic figure than the sociopathic, cruelly sarcastic striver of Thackeray’s Vanity Fair. She genuinely loves both her husband and her son (she tires of the former and dislikes the latter in the book) and is blackmailed for illicit sexual purposes by the menacing Steyne, rather than willingly becoming entangled with him to improve her position. Becky’s happy ending with Jos Sedley in India also glosses over Thackeray’s implication that she engineers his mysterious death in order to get her hands on his money. But then Becky’s arc is pregnant with feminist possibilities that were either dormant or actively considered anti-social or even dangerous in Thackeray’s time, and modern audiences are less likely to look askance on the morality of her choices.

Casting the perky, intelligent Louisianan Witherspoon as one of British literature’s iconic (anti-)heroines initially seems like Nair’s greatest departure. But the reach pays off and Witherspoon’s driven, multifaceted femininity proves a match for her character’s similar qualities. Even her English accent is mostly impeccable. The cast around her is nicely chosen, and each get their moments to shine. The late Hoskins cockneys up Sir Pitt wonderfully, Purefoy rejoices in the rakish, romantic Rawdon, Rhys-Meyers is pure swishing, haughty insouciance, and Ifans is soulful and upright as Dobbin, the closest thing to a traditional male hero that the story has to offer. Garai is a bit too knowing as Amelia, and it’s hard to believe that her version of the character had no clue about the depth of Dobbin’s feelings for her, mind you.

Mira Nair isn’t solely invested in mounting a traditional literary period adaptation with a bit of Hollywood shimmer, however. She draws her own cultural interests and investments out of the material. The costume design (by Beatrix Aruna Pasztor) is sumptuous and flamboyant to an extent well beyond historical reason. The peacock association is strongly underlined by the spectacular evening gowns, feathered fascinators, and florid coats and tails. The clothes make the man, or the woman: the saintly suffering of Amelia is emphasized by her lightly-coloured dresses, while Becky’s chamaeleonic ladder-climbing is typified by her varied wardrobe. The predatory Steyne dons vampiric robes, stalking through his cultish fire-lit party like Dracula through his Transylvanian castle.

Much more noticeable is Nair’s elevation of the material’s sideline associations with the Indian subcontinent. This is her cultural heritage, and she gives it a much more central tonal role in her Vanity Fair. The excursion to Vauxhall Gardens early in the film sets the tone: as Becky flirts with Jos Sedley before he is steered away from an imprudent match by George, Indian dancers, music, food, and fashion suffuse the setting. Dobbin’s own self-imposed exile in India emphasizes his delusional disorientation away from Amelia’s steadying influence; he bizarrely wrestles another man in a Hindu temple as he decides he must return home. Becky’s command performance for the Prince Regent at Steyne’s party is culturally Indian as well, staged as a proto-Bollywood musical number in which she captures an essential exoticism that captivates but also disconcerts her proper English aristocratic audience. And her closing arrival in India with Jos, on the back of elephants with laughing children as a loose escort, glows with romantic fondness for the country of the director’s birth.

Mira Nair’s Vanity Fair emerges as an uneven but sometimes compelling hybrid of Hollywood sheen, literary fidelity, and personal cultural display. It’s not a great film and hardly a perfect adaptation, but its unpredictable peculiarities keep it from becoming a stilted period piece of staid costume drama.

Categories: Film, Literature, Reviews
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