9.25.2016

From the archives: "A smart flirt"


Jonathan Rhys-Meyers and Reese Witherspoon in Vanity Fair (dir. Mira Nair, 2004).

I was a student at SUNY Geneseo when I saw Mira Nair’s Vanity Fair (2004), which I then wrote about for the Weekly Review.  Having read Thackeray’s novel as a high schooler—and having greatly enjoyed Andrew Davies’ nasty, snappy BBC adaptation from 1998—the bar for Nair’s film was set high.  I haven’t seen it since that ill-fated night (on top of the film being a disappointment, I side-swiped a deer with my car on the way to pick up a friend) and have had no desire to do so: my memory is of something so tone deaf that it bore almost no relation to the spirit, or even the letter, of its source.  An excerpt from my review:

“In 1939, fans of Gone With The Wind, Margaret Mitchell’s epic novel of the American South, were up in arms to learn that Vivien Leigh would be cast as Scarlett O’Hara in the big-screen adaptation.  The audacity of a British actress as America’s quintessential Southern belle—it was almost too much to bear.  Now, more than sixty years later, America’s current national Sweetheart, Reese Witherspoon, stars as one of England’s most deliciously wicked anti-heroines in the latest film version of William Makepeace Thackeray’s Vanity Fair.  That Becky Sharp, Thackeray’s irresistible vixen, is something of a literary cousin and precursor to Scarlett O’Hara is all the more fitting.  But while Vivien Leigh ditched her British accent in favor of a Southern one and slipped easily into the role that would immortalize her to audiences forever, Reese Witherspoon, or the screenwriters, ultimately fail to make Becky Sharp as nasty as she deserves to be.  In casting Witherspoon as Becky, America has its little revenge on England, or England has its revenge on America, or something.  Either way, audiences on both sides of the Atlantic are bound to be disappointed with the result.

[…] The Becky Sharp of the new film version, directed by acclaimed Indian filmmaker Mira Nair of Monsoon Wedding, is a pale shade of Thackeray’s fully-realized femme fatale.  Even as the screenplay very clearly makes her the main character, it cannot devote enough time to her between scrambling to fit in all of the other supporting players.  Thackeray’s novel clocks in at over 700 pages and sports a wealth of subplots, enough to fill a BBC miniseries (which it did, quite successfully, in 1998).  This film, at 140 minutes, tries to cram everything in and ends up feeling both rushed and boring.  The subplots suffer, but it’s even more painful to see Becky fail as a character.  Even she cannot make it out unscathed.  She is charming, but without a core of venom Becky is merely a smart flirt.  We can feel the screenwriters holding back for fear that audiences won’t like a meaner Becky, and so instead we’re left praying that she’ll get badder soon.  (She never does.)  The climactic moment of Becky’s downfall is unforgivably staged, making her the unwilling victim instead of the author of her own demise.  Becky Sharp’s razor wit has become as dull as a butter knife.”

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