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Vanity Fair

movie reviewmovie reviewmovie review out of 4 Movie Review: Vanity Fair

Starring: Reese Witherspoon, James Purefoy
Director: Mira Nair
Rated: PG-13
RunTime: 137 Minutes
Release Date: September 2004
Genres: Drama, Romance

*Also starring: Romola Garai, Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, Gabriel Byrne, Jim Broadbent, Bob Hoskins, Rhys Ifans, Eileen Atkins, Kathryn Drysdale, Nicholas Fell, Douglas Hodge

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Review by Harvey Karten
3½ stars out of 4

Nature Boy," one of the great hit songs of the 1940's featured at the beginning of Joseph Losey's movie "The Boy With Green Hair," has this trite but true moral: "The greatest thing/ You'll ever learn/ Is just to love/ And be loved in return." This sentiment, seconded by the filthy rich Lord Steyne, forms a leading conceit in the lavish costume drama "Vanity Fair" directed by Mira Nair ("Monsoon Wedding," "Salaam Bombay"). Within its generous one hundred thirty-five minutes, "Vanity Fair," adapted by Matthew Fault, Mark Skeet, and Julian Fellowes from William Makepeace Thackery's 19th century novel of the same name, evokes the theme of social climbing as well as that of love. We can see how easily the novel and, by extension, this successful adaptation, is a classic: its themes are universal since, after all, aside from the anomalous 1960's and early seventies in America, social climbing has been our favorite sport. While our Constitution forbids titles of nobility and while we in the U.S. treat any mention of social strata as "class warfare," the poor strive to win the lottery and the middle class to amass great quantities of toys, while the doyens of New Money dabble in the game of rising to our own copy of European nobility called Society. The film, like the Thackeray novel, is anchored by Becky Sharp, here played with considerable depth by Reese Witherspoon. In the process of climbing the social ladder from a penniless orphan to governess and then, by marriage to the dashing soldier Rawdon Crawley (James Purefoy) and patronage from the wealthy but lovelorn Steyne, she mixes however tentatively with the great lords and ladies of London, Hampshire and points between.

The story opens near the turn of the 19th century on Rebecca painter and now deceased French mother who, when orphaned, is educated by Miss Pinkerton's Academy. Though Becky learns French and social graces, she feels an emotional gap due to the lack of kindness of any of her teachers and longs for a better life than her birthright would ordinarily allow. As a governess in Hampshire to the children of the eccentric Sir Pitt Crawley (Bob Hoskins), she impresses rich aunt Matilda (Eileen Atkins), who invites her to move with her to London, once again meeting her childhood friend Amelia Sedley (Romola Garai). When Becky marries handsome heir Rawdon Crawley, she and her new husband are cast out by Matilda. Having served in the war against Napoleon, Rawdon returns to a home without money. However Becky has long benefitted from the patronage of Lord Steyne (Gabriel Byrne), a gentleman who, charmed by Becky from the time the latter was an eight-year-old girl, continues to funnel money her way to the consternation of Becky's husband. Thackeray subtitled "Vanity Fair" "A Novel Without a Hero." By virtue of Reese Witherspoon's fine performance as the film's anchor, we see that virtually no one in her circle is without flaws. However likable Becky may be to her admirers such as her husband, Matilda (before the marriage), and the Marquess Steyne, she combines intelligence and beauty with self- centeredness and grasping. What Ms. Witherspoon fails to convey adequately, however, is one major point made by the novel: that Becky stands apart from the society she embraces because she sees the humor and ridiculousness of the men and women of a middle-class England where pride, wealth and ambition are the leading virtues.

The world that director Nair depicts is not quite the same as that shown by Roger Michell in his 1995 adaptation of the Jane Austen novel of the same time period "Persuasion," wherein a young woman has never recovered from her break with a dashing sailor. That understated film evokes a society with relations so repressed that the mere touch by a man of a woman's hand could cause quivers of joy and confusion in the hearts of both. By contrast, Nair's movie depicts an ample number of attempted seductions and hints of affairs: in fact, in one situation, Becky, trying to ward off an aggressive advance by her benefactor, Steyne, is caught in the act of embrace by Becky's husband.

Understated could hardly be the term to describe this film, shot by Declan Quinn principally in the south of England most notably the city of Bath, and in India. Under the bright sun, India, colorful to a fault in free-flowing costumes and exotic music, supplies a graphic contrast to the drab country on the other side of the world, portraying a culture so different and relaxed when compared with the mother country that we do not wonder at Becky's ultimate ambition to join yet another man in his voyage to the Southern Asian country.

Mira Nair does add a contemporary touch that Thackeray could not have considered, leading us to wonder whether we could judge Witherspoon's Becky to be a feminist. Surely she is not the withering flower that describes her best friend, Amelia Sedley) who, for reasons unknown was able to attract a husband in George Osborne (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers)--who desires her so much that he is willing to sacrifice a potential inheritance from his wealthy father (Jim Broadbent). At Witherspoon portrays her, Becky is ambitious enough, willing to work for her keep, doing a terrific job as governess-teacher to children but unable to make the kind of life of which she dreams or the equality she seeks with the lords and ladies of her country. She makes us in the audience realize that there's a thin line between unscrupulous grasping and praiseworthy ambition and, indeed, she may have married Rawdon Crawley for money and position but when the chips are down, she tearfully and convincingly conveys her love for the brave and dashing soldier.

Because the thick novel, with dozens of characters, is whittled down for cinematic portrayal, there's much we can't see, for example, Miss Pinkerton, the snobbish mistress of the academy for girls at which Amelia Sedley and Becky Sharp meet, dislikes Becky intensely. Miss Swartz, the rich wooly-haired student at Miss Pinkerton's School, pays double tuition because of her immense wealth, but we see her only briefly when the Crawley family tries to marry off Rawdon to her. And where is John Sedley, Amelia's father, a middle-class English merchant of grasping, selfish ways who is forced to move from Russell Square to a cottage kept by Clapps, a former servant of the Sedleys?

Hopefully the film will encourage a new audience for the 19th century novel, filled with the sort of social climbing that informed the 1980's in America. This "Vanity Fair" does a handsome job in portraying people who are not good, who are not meant to be good, but who may realize that goodness often goes hand in hand with stupidity and that cleverness is often knavery.

Copyright 2004 Harvey Karten

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