William Makepeace Thackeray's massive novel Vanity Fair has been attempted multiply on film: several silent films, a couple of early talkies, and a few TV mini-series. Now director Mira Nair (Monsoon Wedding) has appropriated the story for a full-blown production with sumptuous design and a crafty leading performance by Reese Witherspoon as the infamous Becky Sharp. Taking a cue from Thackeray's spry, witty, self-referential narration, Indian director Nair emphasizes the allusions to her native country in the story; in so doing, Nair expands the metaphor of India as a land of exotic escape for characters trapped in the immoral carnival of Thackeray's "Vanity Fair."
Thackeray's comedy of manners—pointedly subtitled "A Novel Without a Hero"—begins by sending into the world two graduates of Miss Pinkerton's school for young ladies: Becky Sharp and Amelia Sedley (Romola Garai of Nicholas Nickleby). For Amelia, a guileless young beauty from a wealthy family, the world is her oyster. Becky is the orphaned daughter of a destitute painter; after a brief stay with the Sedleys, she will go to work as governess for one Sir Pitt (a gleeful Bob Hoskins). Determined to make her best possible way in the world, the whip-smart Becky sets to wooing Amelia's awkward brother. When her plans go awry, Becky bides her time in the squalid quarters of Sir Pitt and plots her next escape attempt. As one character puts it, "I thought she was a social climber, but now I see she's a mountaineer."
Though the expansive story—which even incorporates the battle of Waterloo—is demanding, neither the screenplay by Matthew Faulk & Mark Skeet and Julian Fellowes (the latter an Oscar winner for Gosford Park) nor the sure-handed direction by Nair allow the story to become incomprehensible or languid. The safety of distant time allows us to address issues of impoverished social climbing, par for the course in the time of Thackeray and Dickens. Nair contrasts wealth (represented by posh frocks, jewels, flowers, and vibrant, blue peacock feathers) with the squalor of Pinkerton's pretentious school and Pitt's dumpy manor. Money is ephemeral, and rarely a match for intelligence or love, when those qualities hold their ground.
The complex anti-hero of Becky Sharp is both sympathetic and off-putting as, in pursuit of a dubious prize, she ruthlessly navigates a culture dominated by untrustworthy men. "You're not like Amelia," notes Jonathan Rhys-Meyers's caddish George Osborne. "Nothing will quench your fire." Witherspoon's sharply-defined face and furtive eyes serve the role, and she delivers wordless scoffs and Thackeray's inexhaustible supply of bon mots ("Revenge may be wicked, but it's perfectly natural") with equal deftness. That Sharp is hypocritical and often coldly indifferent to the feelings of others—including, at times, her eventual offspring—will test the assumptions of audiences accustomed to heroic behavior from their leading ladies (star-watchers can instead watch for her pregnant belly). Nair deals hastily with Sharp's supposed romances, the better to question them.
Vanity Fair is busy in the best sense, with imagery (Becky's battered trunk serves as a reminder of her humble beginnings), music (Byron's "She Walks in Beauty" and Tennyson's "Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal," set to song, share screen time with Indian music), and idiosyncratic characters (Eileen Atkins as the frightfully bored Matilda Crawley, Gabriel Byrne as the despicable Marquess of Steyne, and the ever-ready Jim Broadbent as George's father stand out). In narrative terms, Vanity Fair amounts to an elegant soap opera, but always with an eye on the practicalities of money and relationships, the consequences of gambling for advancement, and an equivocal glimmer of hope for redemption, if one can only strike the proper grace note on cue.