All’s Foul In Vanity Fair

The conniving Becky Sharp becomes a dull, martyred mope.

Still from Vanity Fair
Not so flippin’ Sharp after all

It’s always touching when liberal, antiracist, feminist artists take it upon themselves to rescue incorrect classics from the prejudices of the author’s age. Nutty, but touching. I remember seeing a nonsensical production of The Merchant of Venice in which Shylock was the one honorable man amid some horribly decadent, anti-Semitic Venetians (they acted more like Venusians), and one of King Lear in which Regan and Goneril were two good daughters doing their best with a patriarchal monster of a father. (Dumb as that sounds, Peter Brook made something compelling of the concept, and, in A Thousand Acres, Jane Smiley recast Lear along similar lines to surprising effect.) But I never thought I’d see a Becky Sharp, the near-demonic schemer of William Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, turned into a martyred ingénue—a gifted young woman driven to overcome the arbitrary restrictions of a sexist and fiercely class-driven society. What a fascinating, topsy-turvy idea. But the resulting Vanity Fair (Focus Features)—directed by Mira Nair and starring Reese Witherspoon as a Becky far more sinned against than sinning—makes absolutely no sense.

If you see this downbeat movie without having waded through Thackeray’s interminable but often archly amusing dissection of the English upper class at the dawn of the 19th century, you’d have no notion that Becky Sharp is one of the great comic female characters in literature—a woman whose take on the society that has shunned her is too deeply cynical to allow for trust or love, who is attractive for her boldness yet repugnant for the way in which she uses people without conscience. A gifted improviser, she’s able to keep her emotions in check and generate tears on cue (only servants and children—especially her own son—see her true nastiness); and when a kind of decency peeks through—as in her affection for her guileless friend, Amelia Sedley—it’s a rare event. But in the rethinking of Nair (and her hapless screenwriters), that decency is the rule rather than the exception. And so we’re left with an increasingly weak-willed protagonist and a narrative with no driving force—no motor.

After Election and even Legally Blonde, Witherspoon seemed like ideal casting: that big, sharp—Becky Sharp!—jaw line; that crack comic timing; that laserlike stare. But her Becky is a complete dud. In the late stages of pregnancy when the movie was shot, she has been costumed to conceal her body; she moves tentatively; and her twittery voice sounds flat and inexpressive beside the great English stage actors who round out the cast. Always taking an extra beat to weigh the pros and cons of her actions (the brow furrows, the eyes move back and forth, the jaw sets), she emerges a mostly passive little thing, preyed upon by assorted rich men and unjustly accused of being a conniver. A conniver! The average contemporary-soap heroine has more commanding wiles. Witherspoon can’t even bring off the scenes in which her singing is supposed to melt the resistance of her fiercest drawing-room adversaries: They seem to be listening to her reedy soprano out of pity. So while Vanity Fair is extremely faithful to the novel’s incidents and dialogue, its meaning has been altered by 180 degrees. Characters who, on the page, are wise to regard her as poison, on the screen become the unthinking instruments of society’s repression.

As Nair demonstrated in Monsoon Wedding, she has an eye for primary colors and swirly spectacle, and in Vanity Fair, she composes frames in which you’re distinctly aware of the menials serving at the pleasure of their “betters” but refrains from ramming that caste system down your throat. However, Nair’s simple-minded take on Becky’s trajectory kills all the drama. After a lively opening 45 minutes, the narrative grows more and more perplexing. Perhaps the worst-directed, acted, and written scene of the year is the one in which Jonathan Rhys-Myers, as Becky’s best friend’s husband, George Osborne, puts the moves on Becky at a dance before Napoleon invades Belgium. He’s callow and effeminate, she’s sexless, and the exchange comes out of nowhere: The adapters have cut all the stuff in which Becky has flirted outrageously with him. At that moment, Vanity Fair disintegrates—and never fully reassembles itself.

More’s the pity, because we’ll probably never see better casting in the supporting roles—almost all of them. Rhys Ifans is mysteriously reluctant to make Dobbin the klutz he is in the novel, but James Purefoy is every inch the decent but lazily rakish Rawdon Crawley, and Romola Garai makes an outrageously pretty Amelia. (Is she too pretty? Maybe, but in the movie Amelia has acquired more stature as Becky has plummeted.) Jim Broadbent is vivid as Osborne Sr., a father unnaturally warped by the desire to buy his family a title; and Bob Hoskins, as the slovenly aristocrat Pitt the Elder, delivers an unprecedentedly nuanced portrait of dissolution.

Eileen Atkins and Gabriel Byrne steal the first and second halves of the film respectively. She plays the rich spinster Matilda Crawley with regal impudence, and the screenwriters do full justice to Matilda—a woman who loves a good romance-novel elopement but can’t abide such a thing in her own life. And Byrne is a magnetic Marquess of Steyne, a dark lord who’s more dangerous as a friend than as an enemy: A scene in which he cruelly taunts his wife, daughter, and daughter-in-law is the film’s most chilling (and Thackeray-esque). It’s too bad that, in the scheme of this movie, Steyne is no longer a monstrous co-conspirator but a leering Count Dracula who exploits our poor, innocent Becky.

I wonder if anything could have made this misfire work. Maybe Nair could have hired Charlie Kaufman to make Thackeray himself a character—the biographer of Becky who will do her the final injustice of misinterpreting her motives? No: Thackeray gave us an antiheroine who has endured in the collective imagination for 150 years. The dull feminist victim of Mira Nair and Reese Witherspoon won’t linger in the mind past Labor Day.