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Ascending the Social Ladder
by Matt Forsman on Sep 03, 2004
Taking a voluminous work of literature and compressing it into a coherent and engaging film is no small task. Director Mira Nair deserves some credit for giving it a shot. Despite the fact that I had not read William Makepeace Thackeray's classic Vanity Fair, Mira Nair's film had the distinct feeling of cinematic Cliff's Notes. Only glossing over certain key parts of the plot and never really fully developing its characters, Vanity Fair would likely help you pass a high school English quiz, albeit barely.
The movie primarily follows the trials and travails of the sharp tongued Becky Sharp (Reese Witherspoon) in her attempts to ascend the social ladder in direct defiance of the low social class into which she was born. Accompanying her on her quest is Amelia Sedley played by Romola Garai (Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights).
The story of Becky's attempts to climb the social ladder of 19th century London is entertaining to a point, but feels somewhat fragmented. We begin with Becky being placed in an orphanage and ten plus years of her life pass in a few frames. Suddenly, she is ready to become a governess and ascend into the upper class. It would have been helpful to know what transpired during the intervening years that helped mold Becky into such a voracious social climber. This is but one of many examples.
Equally problematic is the characterization in Vanity Fair. Very few characters in the film are well developed aside from Ms. Sharp. You get the sense that there were so many characters Nair was trying to juggle that there simply wasn't adequate enough opportunity to sufficiently develop them. The vast majority of the characters populating the film are vapid, shallow snobs. Presumably, we're supposed to laugh at them as this is a social satire, but it's only vaguely amusing initially, and then it just becomes kind of depressing watching the wealthy and privileged behave so badly.
Fortunately, Reese Witherspoon's Becky provides a refreshing contrast to the shallow social upper crust in Vanity Fair. Witherspoon carries the movie with a performance that surpasses her excellent turn in Election. Sharp is the only character in the film with any substance. The actor brings the character to life and shows tremendous dramatic range in the process. It's likely one of the better performances by a female this year.
One of the other redeeming aspects of Vanity Fair is the excellent job done in recreating early 19th century London. The costumes, props, and set lend an air of authenticity to the film. The scenes of lower class squalor are appropriately dingy and one could almost smell the refuse and grime as pigs wallowed in the back alleyways. The only caveat here is the 'Sex Pistols' haircut sported by Jonathan Rhys Meyer (Velvet Goldmine) who plays Amelia Sedley's love interest.
However, Reese Witherspoon's performance and Mira Nair's keen eye for recreating 19th century London is not enough to allow Vanity Fair to ascend to a status beyond mediocre. While Mira Nair is to be commended for her efforts in bringing Thackeray's magnum opus to the screen, a 2-hour canvas was not nearly enough to do the literary masterpiece justice.
Stars: 2.5 out of 5
by Matt Forsman on Sep 03, 2004