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Fine-Feathered Friend: Reese Witherspoon wends her way through British society in 'Vanity Fair.'

Reese's Piece

Thackeray's 'Vanity Fair' is as sharp is Reese Witherspoon's impertinent heroine

By Richard von Busack

O VANITAS vanitatum! (that is, "vanity of vanities"). Which of us is happy in this world? Which of us has his desire? Or in having it, is satisfied? Such is the moral of William Thackeray's novel Vanity Fair—lines once feelingly misquoted in a song by the post-punk band Ian Dury and the Blockheads, incidentally.

Don't let the critics fool you. Except for some inside references to Regency customs and celebs, Vanity Fair does not at all read like your average 700-page novel from the early 1800s. This story of debt, ungrateful heirs, snobbery and spiteful courtship is contempo—so much so, that I could feel no artistic shift of gears between Thackeray's book in my lap and the TV program I was watching with one eye: the syndicated show Blind Date, where a rotating cast of true-life saps, sluts and yobs are fiendishly mocked by shrewd animated hypertext.

Vanity Fair is, in fine, a mean book, starring a character Thackeray once referred to as "the famous little Becky puppet"—namely, that demigoddess of impertinence Rebecca Sharp. Through flirtation and strategic marriage, she wends her way through a roiling mob of climbers, losers, cashed-out officers and drunken aristos. She is momentarily inconvenienced by the Battle of Waterloo, which interferes with a ball she is attending, but she survives to wreak further scandal.

Mira Nair (Monsoon Wedding) directs her adaptation of Vanity Fair from a script by Matthew Faulk and Mark Skeet, with a rewrite by Julian Fellowes of Gosford Park. Reese Witherspoon plays Becky like a post-Legally Blonde Witherspoon character: she's a hard-edged belle scattering a conservative society. Nair works the feminist subtext hard, and watching her film is like reading a copy of the novel someone underscored with a yellow felt-tip marker, highlighting the passages where Thackeray admits that Becky has no chances and has to push.

But it's Becky's occasional boldness that opens doors, rather than persistent effort. The book isn't subtitled "A Novel Without a Hero" for nothing—nor heroine, neither. Sharp is a sponge. She's not particularly hardworking, she doesn't understand the concept of sisterhood and she's a lazy mother. We might admire her for her hustle, but she isn't a master conniver. And unfortunately, the various scriptwriters on Gone With the Wind ransacked Vanity Fair when they were writing Scarlett O'Hara.

Livening up the picture is Bob Hoskins in a mangy white wig, playing that decadent member of the gentry, Sir Pitt Crawley. Jim Broadbent, always a treat, turns up as the apoplectic old merchant Mr. Osborne, and Eileen Atkins is acrid fun as the rich and supposedly liberal sister Matilda. Jonathan Rhys Meyers is a diverting figure as an arrogant British officer, George Osborne. He gets a real Gilbert and Sullivan line: "'Dare' is not a word one uses to a captain in the British army." Rhys Meyers' natural look of arrogance is set off nicely by Beatrix Aruna Pasztor's costumes, especially the high square collars and sickle-shaped sideburns that those Regency bon vivants used to camouflage their double chins and wattles. (Elvis, or one of his people, also figured out the trick.)

Nair reimagines the Marquess of Steyne—a decayed personage who sounds like a bald version of Alfred E. Neuman, in Thackeray's version—as a brimstone-scented Byronic figure, played by Gabriel Byrne. Byrne's terrific, anyway. The last third of the film is brightened by the contrast between Steyne's own hereditary taint and the one thing about Becky that's pure, her singing voice (dubbed by the exquisite soprano Custer LaRue of the early-music group Baltimore Consort).

Still the familiar problem of the costume drama unfolds here: short bursts of energetic character acting with intervals by less compelling leads such as Rhys Ifans' Dobbin, Romolo Garai as the good girl Amelia, and James Purefoy as Becky's husband, Rawdon Crawley, a dullard with some fleeting success as a gambler.

Nair spices up the visuals with a vision of England flush with wealth from the colonies. The story is of ruling-class England fattening itself up after the defeat of Napoleon. Vanity Fair gets more gilded, glutted with parrots and peacocks, as the movie progresses. Happily, the film sees the rot behind the satin trimmings. Rouben Mamoulian's 1935 Becky Sharp was the first feature film released in Technicolor, and its saturated bright color was a marvel in its time. Graham Greene, then a film critic, noted that the brightness made everything look new—a handicap in a movie about so many down-at-the-heels characters. Greene asked, "Can Technicolor reproduce with the necessary accuracy the suit that has been worn too long, the oily hat?"

Cinematographer Declan Quinn evokes that longed-for shabbiness and oiliness, as well as a gaudiness that candle light can't diffuse. Nair's Vanity Fair doesn't look like Merchant/Ivory in the least. And the colors are akin to the clashing mauves and pinks in the tinted caricatures by Thomas Rowlandson and James Gillray.

Nair dedicates her film to the historian Edward Said. In Said's honor, it seems, Nair has taken Thackeray's satire as the revenge of the colonized on the colonials. Yet Thackeray considers colonies the worst backwaters of them all, and he shares in the main characters' mockery of a mulatto heiress. Nair's choice to pick India as an offscreen land of sensuality and happy endings seems another strangely politically correct choice.

The reason Thackeray isn't often adapted may be because of his strong authoritative voice. Almost no way exists to duplicate it, except for extensive narration. Stanley Kubrick, who had his own authoritorial heaviness, made his deadest film ever out of Thackeray. He cast Ryan O'Neal because you needed someone affable and heartless to play a heel like Barry Lyndon.

In Vanity Fair, the one with the clout is the star, not the director. When you read of Becky Sharp's progress, it reminds you of that comment of Balzac's about how there are two routes to make one's way in the world: either to burst through men like a cannonball or to seep among them like a plague. In the novel, Becky's way is the latter, but Witherspoon acts it as the former. Since Witherspoon has become a star, she's lost any traces of subversiveness. So her performance becomes at one with the oversized acting of the guest stars; a character part, only longer.


Vanity Fair (PG-13; 137 min.), directed by Mira Nair, written by Matthew Faulk, Julian Fellowes and Mark Skeet, photographed by Declan Quinn and starring Reese Witherspoon, plays valleywide.


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From the September 1-7, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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