Upon publication of William Makepeace Thackeray’s 1847 novel Vanity Fair, a critic asked, “Is it advisable to raise so ruthlessly the veil which hides the rottenness pervading modern society?” The book is a barbed mockery of upper-class pretension and the hypocrisy of Victorian culture; it chronicles the life of Becky Sharp, an orphaned governess engaged in a bitter struggle to reach the upper echelons of aristocracy, depending only on beauty and wit to get her there.
Director Mira Nair’s lavish adaptation of the classic satire comes at you like a tsunami of clucky hysterics, overflowing with gorgeous young actors dressed to the hilt in impeccably designed costumes. Nineteenth century London is re-created so well it becomes the actual star of the film, but Reese Witherspoon as Becky fights for center stage and often wins. This role is her most complex since Election. Her snakelike maneuvering and resilience is commanding, but it is, of course, true love that brings her to her knees.
The impoverished aristocrats, dirty old men, predatory benefactors, stuffy hags, young dandies and little princesses populating Vanity Fair are downright vile, but the film doesn’t delve as deeply as the novel. Due to the huge scope of Thackeray’s 900 pages, the film has little time to linger over any particular section, compressing as much as possible into two and a half hours. The resulting density of the narrative is wearisome, and makes the film seem longer than it really is. It might have translated better as a 12-hour miniseries.
However, the scenery is quite satisfying. In a purely visual sense, Vanity Fair aggressively sets a standard for the period romance, and even with Thackeray’s bite taken down a notch or two, the film has a lot more on its mind that your average Merchant Ivory production. Thackeray’s theme of primal instincts at war with social rigidity is indeed a timeless one, and that, if nothing else, gives the film just enough edge to make it interesting.
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