"Vanity Fair," full of elaborate costumes and settings, is still a cold exercise in which an overmatched Reese Witherspoon grapples with an empty script.
By DAVID N. BUTTERWORTH
"What I want to make is a set of people living without God in the world greedy, pompous men, perfectly self-satisfied for the most part, and at ease about their superior virtue," maintained William Makepeace Thackeray while writing his celebrated novel "Vanity Fair." To that end he succeeded of course, although this speaks nothing of the women of the piece, least of all the young opportunist at its center, one Becky Sharp, a clever and manipulative girl born into poverty who determinedly schemes to better herself.
It's no surprise, therefore, to be reminded of the book's complete title, "Vanity Fair, A Novel without a Hero."
|Directed by: Mira Nair.|
Written by: Matthew Faulk, Julian Fellowes, Mark Skeet.
Adapted from the novel by: William Makepeace Thackeray.
Cast: Reese Witherspoon, Jim Broadbent, Eileen Atkins, James Purefoy, Jonathan Rhys Meyers .
Cinematography: Declan Quinn.
Edited by: Allyson C. Johnson.
Related links: Official site | All of David N. Butterworth's reviews at Rotten Tomatoes
For a story without a hero, no matter how deliberately appointed, is much like a heroine without a heart: no matter how much we try to relate to or identify with or consider ourselves in Becky's disengaged position, we can only truly observe. And this is certainly true of the novel's latest cinematic rendering courtesy "Monsoon Wedding's" Mira Nair.
Becky (played by Reese Witherspoon), Sharp of name and sharp of mind, manages to rise above her humble upbringings through sheer force of will. Appointed as governess to the country estate of Sir Pitt Crawley (Bob Hoskins), Becky is taken under the wing of elderly Aunt Matilda (a delightful Eileen Atkins) who, recognizing the young girl's quick wit and temperament, bustles her off to London and watches as Becky turns social climbing into the fine art of mountaineering!
Having been previously unable to win the hand of Joseph Sedley (Tony Maudsley), the rich yet exceedingly dim brother of her best friend from boarding-school Amelia (Romola Garai), Becky turns her considerable attentions to Sir Pitt's younger son Rawdon (James Purefoy), slyly marrying him before engaging his suspicions when wealthy benefactor Lord Steyne (Gabriel Byrne), to whom she sold a painting of her mother as a child, comes to call.|
While Witherspoon was pluckily perfect as Elle Woods in the "Legally Blonde" films, her Becky Sharp leaves much to be desired (I couldn't help but wonder what Nicole Kidman might have done with this part). The role calls for a strength of character Witherspoon is simply unable to convey. Her male counterparts fare better including Jonathan Rhys-Meyers and Rhys Ifans as Amelia's suitors but it's a tall order to win the audience's empathy when you're playing greedy, superior, self-satisfied men.
Nair's imagining, while technically competent, is neither engaging nor socially observant. Worse still it's often dull as dishwater, dispassionately detached, a soulless affair without a champion. (Matthew Faulk, Julian Fellowes, and Mark Skeet penned the script, so maybe they're partly to blame.) There's very little drama to speak of, few moments when tensions are raised, or when passions erupt... although I did enjoy the scene in which Byrne's Steyne gives his stuck-up family a wicked tongue-lashing over the dinner table.|
"Vanity Fair" (the book) demands grandeur, opulent parties and ornate costumes sporting much dÄcolletage, and while these are very much in evidence, "Vanity Fair" (the movie) feels like a sumptuous masque to which nobody bothered to invite the guest of honor. The outfits are grand (as are the surroundings) and the genteel go through their carefully crafted motions with a certain politeness, but there's really no real reason for anyone to be there.
It's an elaborate but empty entertainment.
|SEPTEMBER 10, 2004|
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