Published Sep 01, 2004William Makepeace Thackeray's classic novel of social manipulation, Vanity Fair, has been adapted for film and television since 1911. But never has it been adapted in such a grand manner as it is in director Mira Nair's latest update. Nair (whose previous work includes 2001's indie hit Monsoon Wedding and the recent HBO film Hysterical Blindness) manages to turn a nearly 150-year-old novel into a 140-minute film, complete with lavish sets and costumes, and what seems like half of the British Actor's Guild in the film's numerous supporting roles. (Reese Witherspoon is the only non-British performer cast, in the lead role no less.) Set in early 19th century England, Vanity Fair tells the story of Becky Sharp (Witherspoon, pregnant to an often distracting degree), the orphaned daughter of an artist who schemes her way into upper-class London. Along the way she uses and abuses a wide array of colourful characters, including best friend Amelia (Romola Garai), employer Pitt (Bob Hoskins) and love interest Rawdon (James Purefoy). But things don't always work out for Ms. Sharp and she ends up over her head in lies and deceit. The tale transverses about 25 years of Becky's life and though at times the script seems rushed (the novel was obviously more thorough), the completed work retains the best aspects of the novel: its wit and charm.
It is when the film takes a more serious tone that the outcome is more frustrating. It becomes unclear whether Nair wants us to sympathise with Becky or dislike her. Witherspoon seems unsure herself and often seems to sit on the fence as to whether to play into Becky's dark side or to make her more likable. Despite this, her performance is polished and often quite funny. And, generally, so is the film. But just like Becky Sharp herself, Nair just doesn't quite pull it off. (Alliance Atlantis)