What's more, Vanity Fair has heroine Becky Sharp, a steely, pragmatic, scheming social climber whose genius for manipulation has earned her lasting notoriety -- and, for many, adulation. Director Mira Nair is an admirer, and in her roiling, naturalistic film, Becky is a complex woman whose ambition to rise above her lot feels both sympathetic and familiar. In fact, it feels American.
That's why Reese Witherspoon, an American in a cast of British notables (including the unparalleled Eileen Atkins), is such a great casting choice. Her Becky is a richer, deeper and far more womanly version of Election's Tracy Flick, purposefully cultivating her feminine wiles and using her understanding of other people's motives to advance her agenda. (One character says of her, "I had thought her a mere social climber. I see now she is a mountaineer.") Her Becky is smart, funny and not merely sharp but also soft, allowing attachment to her naive friend Amelia (Romola Garai) and to Becky's husband, the sanguine Rawdon Crawley (James Purefoy).
Nair, too, is an excellent match for Thackeray. The director of Monsoon Wedding and Mississippi Masala sees the movie as an opportunity to comment on the economics of colonialism, using characters stationed in India. Her film also heaves with sensuality -- not sexuality, though there is some of that, but rather the colors, sounds and textures of an imperialist society mining its territories for spices, fabrics, music, animals, fashion and so on. Nair never misses a chance to embrace chaos; she wants to give us a complete picture of every stratum of society and, ultimately, a notion of how these strata intertwine.
It's a Victorian sensibility -- and an ambitious project. Thackeray luxuriated in his 850 pages; Nair has but 150 minutes. The book has been chopped with care, but the film courses through Becky's seesawing fortunes (and a spate of her male admirers) without allowing time to establish the emotional groundwork. The acting is excellent, and most scenes land where they should, but there is not a lot of build. Once in a while, things even turn silly, as when a momentary attempt to capture a character's 10 years in India collapses into a farce of straggly hair, mustaches and yogic wrestling. By the end, neither resolution (one for Amelia's plot and another for Becky's) carries much import. It's all very amusing but not affecting.
What's best about Vanity Fair, besides Witherspoon and Nair, is its humor. Eileen Atkins is hilarious as the crotchety Miss Crawley, wrinkling her nose at the slightest provocation: "Keep your toadying until I get to a fire. You can suck up all you want once I'm warm." Astonished by news of her brother's proposal to Becky, Miss Crawley rises from her modest bath to reveal a naked left buttock! (You go, Eileen!) The slithering Marquess of Steyne (Gabriel Byrne), inviting Becky to dine with his family, compares his wife to Lady MacBeth and his daughters to Goneril and Regan. And Bob Hoskins does a raucous turn as Sir Pitt Crawley, master of the decaying mansion Queen's Crawley, who falls under the spell of Becky's civilizing influence.
Nair set out to create something sensual and alive, and she has done that. She also has given us a feminist (or perhaps humanist) reading of Becky, which is equally welcome. And yet, though the film bubbles with humor, sensual detail, and heaps of plot, it never quite becomes more than the sum of its parts. It's well worth seeing, but it isn't transcendent.