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Set against the background of the Battle of Waterloo, Becky Sharp is the story of Vanity Fair by Thackeray. Becky and Amelia are girls at school together, but Becky is from a "show biz" family, or in other words, very low class. Becky manages to insinuate herself in Amelia's family and gets to know all their friends. From this possibly auspicious- beginning, she manages to ruin her own life, becoming sick, broke, and lonely, and also ruins the lives of many other "loved ones". In the movie we get to see the class distinctions in England at the time, and get a sense of what it was like for the English military at the time of the Napoleonic wars. Written by
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Great Victorian Novel becomes Interesting Looking But Weak Film
Because of the overwhelming success of his novels, people still read Charles Dickens. If you poled people who like to read classic novels, you would find most people read Dickens, Emily and Charlotte Bronte, and Anthony Trollope most among the "high Victorian" novelists (those from 1830 - 1882). This cuts out a large number of fine novelists, like George Eliot, George Meredith, Elizabeth Gaskell, and Benjamin Disraeli (yes, the Prime Minister), or even William Wilkie Collins, the first great mystery/detective novelist. But the one that is particularly odd is William Makepeace Thackeray.
In his day (he was a prominent novelist from 1839 to 1863 when he died) Thackeray was actually the leading rival of Dickens as the leading novelist. Dickens was capable of a wider variety of social class types in his fiction, and could show wilder humor and greater tragedy in his novels. But Thackeray was more gifted at subtle characterization and clever social satire of the upper class. He was a member of that class, and knew what he was talking about when he wrote about them. George Orwell noted that when Dickens did an aristocrat in like Sir Mulberry Hawk in "Nicholas Nickleby", the resulting character was a type from Victorian melodrama, whereas Thackeray or Trollope made more realistic figures.
He also was willing to experiment in odd ways. Occasionally Dickens did too - he did first person narrative novels like "David Copperfield" and once did one with a female narrator "Bleak House". But in 1846 Thackeray wrote "Vanity Fair, A Novel Without A Hero". The title was a pun. The two leading characters, Rebecca (Becky) Sharp and Amelia Sedley, are women (so it suggests the novel has a "heroine"). But both women are quite faulty. Becky is a fortune hunter who won't let anyone or anything keep her from becoming rich. Amelia is a nice person. In fact, she is too nice. She has to go through an 800 page story before she stops being friendly to her school friend Becky, and only after Becky reveals what a bad person she has been to Amelia.
None of the characters in "Vanity Fair" is flawless. The closest to a hero in the story, William Dobbin, adores Amelia - but won't push himself as a suitor (he wants her to notice his adoration by herself). Becky vamps members of the Crawley family (where she is the family governess), and marries the second son, Rawdon, in expectation of a generous aunt's largesse to support them. But that fails to work out. So she tags along with Rawdon, accompanying him on the Waterloo campaign, and makes a play for George Osbourne (Amelia's selfish husband). Eventually she and Rawdon become social figures, "living well on nothing a year" (by cheating merchants of payments for their food, clothes, etc). She also becomes the mistress of the powerful Marquis of Steyne (pronounced "stain").
How the events of this novel without a hero end I leave to the reader to read the novel (the best way) or to see either this version by Rouben Mamoulian, the recent one with Reese Witherspoon, or a modern dress version from 1932 with Myrna Loy as Becky. Mamoulian's version reduces the story to 90 minutes of film, and so much is thrown out. In particular the antics of Amelia's cowardly, pompous brother Joseph Sedley (Nigel Bruce in Mamoulian's film). Hopkins does very well as Becky - garnering her best film performance. She is supported by Alan Mowbray as Rawdon, who may be raffish in some ways but gains our respect as he sees the woman he loves for what she is. Francis Dee is adequate (if not memorable) as Amelia. Cedric Hardwicke is sinister and powerful as Steyne. Allison Skipworth gives one a taste of the self-centered, pampered aunt of Rawdon, "Miss Crawley".
So what went right and wrong. It is a great novel (my opinion) but I admit this film leaves me cold. So much was cut out the film is just a synopsis of the main plot. But then, Thackeray's greatest strength as a satirist was as a subtle writer. Somehow subtlety on his printed page is not well translated onto the silver screen. On the other hand, Mamoulian did make great strides (in terms of elegant cinematography) with the then new three tone color film system. The best moment is at the scene of the great last ball given to Wellington's staff and men at Brussels in June 1815, which ends as a cannon blast in the distance is heard: the opening shot of Waterloo. The moment that the blast is heard a blast of air causes a red curtain to blow, looking like a wave of blood. Mamoulian was able to squeeze out of the process some idea of what to do with it. For that reason the film is worth seeing. But I urge the interested viewer to take the time to read Thackeray's novel.
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