Vanity Fair Review
By Sean O'Connell
Mira Nair has groomed her sumptuous adaptation of William Makepeace Thackeray's novel Vanity Fair for Oscar contention, and the period epic easily could compete in a number of technical categories. Pencil the handsome film down for costume design, art direction, and makeup nominations. Declan Quinn's cinematography certainly deserves a nod, too. It's a little early to tell how all the races will shake out, but leading lady Reese Witherspoon could even surprise a few people by seeing her name on a short list of Best Actress nominees.
Too bad no one is going to pay to see the film. Most mainstream filmgoers would opt for root canal over having to sit through a 19th century social commentary piece. Take Ang Lee's Sense And Sensibility as an example. It earned seven Oscar nominations back in 1995, but only grossed $42 million in the States.
Which is unfortunate, because there's plenty to enjoy in Fair, starting with Witherspoon's multifaceted turn as Becky Sharp. The orphaned daughter of a starving artist, she manipulates the hearts of decent men to climb London's social ladders. At a time when class status means everything, Becky lives well above her means but manages to stay in society's good graces through some well-placed applications of observant wit, sarcastic humor and irresistible charm. She befriends impressionable Amelia (Romola Garai), marries into the respectable Crawley family, and eventually catches the eye of a wealthy suitor in the Marquis of Steyne (Gabriel Byrne).
Becky's a demanding role, yet Witherspoon seems comfortable operating on either end of the communal food chain - her character must go from destitute to privileged and back again over the course of the film's 2 hour and 20 minute runtime. Nair peppers Becky's journey with light and lively comedic touches, and even injects a distinct Indian flair that supplements the accessible screenplay. The tasty Fair script, credited to three different writers, maintains an unexpected conversational tone and is seasoned with bitter games of social manipulation.
The challenge comes in condensing Thackeray's 800-page novel into a workable story, and Nair does an admirable job juggling character arcs and managing her film's flow. A scorecard's almost necessary to keep the Crawley's separate from the other families of the age. There's still enough to trim, especially in Becky's final bid for wealth and status that occupies the film's final act and turns Byrne into a lecherous old cad. But if the class struggles of the corseted clans are your thing, then Fair is a decently-acted and good looking film that's worth your time and money.
The DVD includes commentary from Nair, deleted scenes, and two behind-the-scenes featurettes.
Prepare the bonfires!
Facts and Figures
In Theaters: Wednesday 1st September 2004
Box Office Worldwide: $16.1M
Distributed by: Focus Features
Production compaines: Alliance Films
Contactmusic.com: 3.5 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 51%
Fresh: 83 Rotten: 81
Cast & Crew
Starring: Reese Witherspoon as Becky Sharp, James Purefoy as Rawdon Crawley, Jonathan Rhys Meyers as George Osborne, Romola Garai as Amelia Sedley, Gabriel Byrne as The Marquess of Steyne, Rhys Ifans as William Dobbin, Jim Broadbent as Mr. Osborne, Bob Hoskins as Sir Pitt Crawley, Eileen Atkins as Miss Matilda Crawley, Tony Maudsley as Joseph Sedley, Douglas Hodge as Pitt Crawley, Tom Sturridge as Older Georgy Osborne