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Rarely has a classic work of literature been adapted for television so
This is a marvellous retelling of William Thackeray's 19th century novel,
successful in almost every possible way. Purists may quibble that any
attempt to adapt this sprawling bane of literature students' lives will
always be doomed to failure simply because of the sheer size of it. But
makes this so good, particularly for those familiar with the novel, are two
things: its total commitment to the spirit of 'Vanity Fair', and joyously
perfect casting and acting.
As readers of VF will know, the narrator plays a very important part in the book. His sly comments on the 'puppets' (as he often refers to the characters) that perform in his 'play' are frequently funny, exciting and always engaging. If VF is indeed 'a novel without a hero', it is no less engrossing for it. For the story is literally a Fair: characters come and go as the narrator sees fit while we the audience look on with amusement. We start with both Becky Sharp (the main character but not the traditional heroine as Thackeray's contemporary audience would have expected) and Amelia Sedley, and we follow their fortunes and interaction with other characters over some twenty or thirty years. Characters come, characters go; some die, some are born. But nearly always the narrator is there to invite us to feel something towards them: sympathy, repulsion, anger, love. And though he is notable by his absence in the book's most powerful scenes, he will return shortly to talk about something else that another character is getting up to. This is where this adaptation nails the spirit of VF so precisely; it never forgets that these characters are puppets in a play, performing for our entertainment. Traditional bandstand music plays over scenes to reinforce this impression. The comedy elements make us laugh (Jos Sedley and his enormous, well-fed behind trying to mount a horse or carriage), the battle scenes are visceral, the dramatic scenes are engrossing. And the sly comments of the narrator are subtly retained in bizarre camera shots: the fat pig snuffling outside Queen's Crawley, or the beggar playing 'Rule Britannia' with his little bells as the soldiers march off to fight the Battle of Waterloo.
But this would have been for nought if the casting had not been spot on. Natasha Little IS Becky Sharp. Beautiful, alluring, charming, witty, cunning, deceptive and manipulative, she is every man's dream on the outside (I fell in love with her, and I can see all she is getting up to!). One look from her eyes is all that is required to get her climbing the social ladder, which ultimately is all that she wants. Frances Grey is also perfect as Amelia; not as beautiful as Becky, but still pleasant, sweet and kind-hearted, and forever doting on George Osborne. Tom Ward as Osborne was not what I was expecting, yet he got it right: a dashing English officer, strikingly handsome, and not totally devoid of morals, but very easily succumbs to his vanity and pride. Philip Glenister as the only genuinely heroic character in the book (though still not without faults), Dobbin, again is not how I pictured the character, but again nails it perfectly: slightly clumsy, socially awkward, but clear thinking, level-headed and always ready to do the right thing. The rest of the cast play their respective grotesques with equal perfection and relish - to single out each and every one is impossible, though all deserve it.
As a lover of this book, I congratulate all on a job well done. I cannot comment on how someone who has not read VF will like this series, but I can understand that they may be a little bewildered by it all: the occasional dizzy camerawork and loud brass band music. So long as you understand that we are the audience of a colourful, vibrant fair populated by a rich assortment of people, all with faults, all with redeeming features (however materialistic they might be), then I think you should derive great pleasure from it, because more than anything, this is great fun.
I saw this version of "Vanity Fair" when A&E premiered it in 1998, and I
totally captivated. I had not, at that time, read the book, so I was
happily tugged along by every twist and turn of this delightful tale. The
acting is outstanding on all accounts, the writing is solid, and
story is timeless.
Now I am finally getting 'round to reading the book, and I am amazed by how faithful this mini-series is to the original work. Though I usually am frustrated by the liberties that are taken with great literature, and I believe that one should always "read the book" before taking in someone else's interpretation of it, this is a case where having "seen the movie" makes it even more fun to read the book.
Becky Sharp, Emmy Sedley, and especially Captain Dobbins (Philip Glenister really shines) are vividly portrayed -- as are all of the characters. This is a real page-turner of a story, and A&E has done it justice. In either order, read the book and watch the movie. You'll have great fun!
Generally I think that the great Victorian door-stoppers are better
suited to the mini series format than that of feature films because
even with a running time pushed to three hours there just isn't the
room for the typical panorama of characters, supporting characters,
plots and subplots. Even this production unavoidably leaves much out,
but it captures the essence of Thackeray--cold eyed cynicism very
occasionally softened by generosity. Nearly every element worked, right
down to the snorting pig that appeared at the beginning of each new
installment. I admit at first I was a bit disappointed by the choice of
Natasha Little to play Rebecca because I thought the actress was too
tall and elegant to play a character who was described as petite and
vivacious. But no matter; Little's cool headedness, verbal wit, and
carefully disguised ruthlessness were all pure Becky (unlike Mira Nair,
the screenwriters of this production realized that to soften this
character's harder edges wouldn't modernize her; rather, it would
flatten her). Frances Grey does fine in in the thankless role of Amelia
Sedley. Although this was somewhat out of keeping with the novel, I did
like the scene of Amelia still in bed after her wedding night, her hair
spread out on the pillow, blissfully talking to her new husband. It
makes her seem a bit more than stupidly devoted child-woman she is for
most of the novel and makes those later scenes in which Becky and
George (just weeks after George's marriage) brazenly flirt in front of
Amelia all the more painful. The other characters are well cast too,
with the terrifying Lord Steyne being the most memorable of all--in his
final scene, without having to say a word he looks as if he really will
have Becky murdered without a second thought if she ever approaches him
All in all, highly recommended.
This is brisk, fun production that doesn't take itself any more
seriously than it should, and doesn't mind winking at us with a secret
smile at the same time. The story of Becky Sharp, a girl who is never
any better than she needs to be, and her friend Amelia who is much too
good for her own good.
Natasha Little is simply perfect as Becky. Little is the kind of woman that women find hard to like: delicately beautiful, exceptionally talented making her perfect to play Becky. It is the subtle nuances in her moments that give her performance great depth and complexity needed for accessibility for a selfish character who is the smartest person in any room she is in. Becky is a woman who would agree with the quote of another brilliant beauty, Hedy Lamar: "Any woman can be glamorous. All she has to do is stand still and look stupid." Little's Beky is not as likable or vulnerable as Reese Witherspoon who played Becky in a major motion picture film version made right around the same time but with a miniseries we have time to understand her more. Besides, not many actresses are as likable as Witherspoon.
As the story begins, this production does not look lavish, but the casting is so wonderful, the script so strong, the costumes simple but just right, that we are given the ability to focus on getting to know the people we will be following through 6 episodes.
It is this initial simplicity that is the brilliance of the production design by Malcolm Thornton. In the early stages, poverty is cramped and messy; work is dark, cluttered and rotting, and wealth is clean, and bright and airy like freedom. As we progress through the story, wealth becomes more complex, overstuffed and overdecorated, echoing the complexity of the lives of Becky and Rawdon. Rawdon played by the handsome and overwhelmingly talented Nathaniel Parker (INSPECTOR LINLEY, BLEAK HOUSE).
Breathtaking Andrew Davies, possibly the most brilliant adapter of the classics of all time, gifts us with a screenplay of grace and subtlety, weaving the ease of modern speech perfectly into the period action in a way that feels classic, but is totally accessible.
It all bounces along to the ohm-pa-pa of a brass band. This band is one of the anachronistic touches of the production. While it passes as a military band, it also has a the raw, slightly under-rehearsed sound of a New Orleans jazz band, and sometimes a 1940s dance hall meanwhile Becky's musical choices are straight from the pub to the delight of the men around her. The band is really the only downfall of the production, in the moments of great serious importance, the band hits us over the head with a blaringly repetitive theme that gets very annoying after 6 episodes. It is the only "wrong note" in an otherwise witty and wise score. One of the nice subtle touches is that even Becky's singing, which at first seems flawless and delightful, begins to sound a bit flat in the episodes where we see dark results of her behavior on those around her.
The music for Amelia and William is completely different. Plaintive melodies played as quietly as loyalty and love that things only of the good of the beloved. Philip Glenister as William carries the heart of the piece with affecting restraint. Miriam Margoles does her best work EVER here, and Jeremy Swift as Jos is absolutely delightful in every moment he is on screen!
This entire miniseries is just marvelous, aspects of the production in tune with each other, in service to the whole piece. FANTASTIC.
There has been a ridiculous number of movies about psychopathic killers -
Silence of the Lambs, Se7en, Copycat, The Cell, etc, etc - and yet for a
realistic depiction of a psychopath, this mini-series leaves them all far
behind. If you want to see what the average psychopath is like (or perhaps
should say above average, because there is nothing average about Becky
Sharp), this is far more true to life than all the others. The reality is
that for every Hannibal Lecter in the world, there are a thousand Becky
Sharps, and together they do far more damage than all the serial killers.
can only think that Thackeray must have known someone like her, because
can't get this close to reality by sheer imagination, and I don't know of
any literary examples he could have copied from.
Of course, the novel, and the series, are about far more than one character - they are in fact about Vanity Fair, the world that Thackerary knew and didn't particularly love, the society which was so warped and hypocritical (rather like ours today, in fact) that it allowed characters like Becky Sharp to prosper.
This is not nearly as pleasant as the usual BBC mini-series, but it is compulsively watchable; the depiction is almost flawless and Natasha Little does a brilliant job portraying the woman we love to hate. The rest of the cast is also excellent, including Nathaniel Parker as Rawdon, the principal victim of his wife's intrigues, Philip Glenister as the lovable but awfully clumsy Dobbin and David Bradley as the appalling baronet Sir Pitt Crawley.
A six hour miniseries by the BBC and A&E, "Vanity Fair" (1998) has sufficient time to present the classic tale of the socially adroit, cunning, and beguiling Becky Sharp's rise from lowly governess to lofty aristocrat with depth, detail, and attention to the many characters and side stories swirling around her. Given it's British pedigree, the film recreates the period with fidelity from beautiful country vistas to dank squalor; from stately manors to Gothic mansions; from handsome gentlemen to grotesque lechers; from elegant gowns to threadbare cloaks; etc. Natasha Little makes a superb centerpiece though her fellow actors are equally well cast and competent in their roles. The downside to the series is a somewhat uneven screenplay which spends time while women sing parlor songs only to rush through some of the moments in which we would most like to linger. The musical score is annoyingly heavy handed, poorly nuanced, and often too much like a poor Salvation Army brass street ensemble. "Vanity Fair" (1998) should be time well spent for anyone into Victorian period fare, especially comedy/dramas, the works of W.M. Thackeray, or fans of the players. Subtitling is excellent. (B+)
Thackeray prefaced his book with a short piece apparently explaining
that the characters were just "puppets" who lived, ate and made love in
a (fictional?) world that was neither moral nor immoral. Some have
taken this at face value. However the book is generally seen as a
savage satire and even today the appearance of Knight of the Realm, Sir
Pitt Crawley, is rather shocking in that the reader just as much as the
characters in the book, mistake him for a footman or even watchman such
are his appearance and manners - breaking a convention that other
Victorian writers such as Dickens and Trollope strictly observed. In
the opening chapter the exceedingly disrespectful young Becky Sharp is
again a character set against the Victorian archetype. Neither virtuous
nor fallen woman (generally the literary alternatives at the time),
Becky Sharp fights her way through life using her sharpness of
perception and her bodily attractions - sometimes winning, sometimes
Thackeray portrays a world where people can and do behave badly and act grossly. They are though not puppets - satire is not the portrayal of puppets, rather a clear-sighted, uncharitable and somewhat exaggerated version of reality. Thackeray is writing without rosy spectacles. The virtuous do not necessarily live happily ever after and the bad go unpunished. The weak, it seems, go to the wall. His preface then should be seen as a disingenuous disclaimer to quiet and fob off those who took exception to the sourness of his portrayal of humanity. But the book stands on its own two feet. The real Becky Sharp, on the make and none too scrupulous, existed then, she exists today, as do all the other characters but it requires the removal of the rose-tinted spectacles to see them - and perhaps some courage to write about them too.
This production plays the story entirely straight - an excellent cast portraying their characters realistically and without exaggeration, living according to their respective values and the hand Life deals them. It is left to the titles - the visuals and the music - to sound a ripe raspberry at their antics - and to remind us that this is not a puppet show but a sharp satire on how some people lived in England 200 years ago.
A pretty fine cast, not all though got an opportunity to shine, but memorable were Jeremy Swift as a perspiring great dumpling Jos Sedley; an unsmiling, uncharming and unsightly Lord Steyne, removing the noble from the nobility; Philip Glennister as the ever reliable Dobbin; Nathaniel Parker as the dashing officer/adventurer snared by adventuress, Becky Sharp. The problem however I had with Natasha Little was that she was no seductress, there was no sweetness (however false) that surely would have been an essential weapon in her fight to get what she wanted? Perhaps the book does not make clear the nature of her appeal to men, only her will, her lack of scruples and the mixed success she had. Was she too sharp to successfully mask it with sweetness? Was her practical, cool matter-of-factness attractive? Perhaps for all his sharp observation, Thackeray did not have intimate knowledge of such aggressively ambitious women?
Nobody mentions adapter Andrew Davies? Probably because he has done his job so well that nobody notices.
I rather doubt there will be a better version.
Loved this production! I had never read the book (I will now!) but have grown to have a lot of trust in any adaptation that BBC does. I was not disappointed. Especially impressive was the ability of Natasha Little (Becky Sharp) to express Becky's manipulativeness through her subtle facial expressions and subtle use of her eyes and her voice. She was able to convey the mix of wicked cunning and refined pleasantness in a way that was really convincing. Not hard to believe that so many of the characters were completely sucked in by Becky's wiles. This subtle and superb acting ability is often lost in modern films that rely so heavily on on visual/graphic effects to make the point. Bravo,BBC!
You should read the review by PrimusM - it is an incredible read. I first saw this on television about ten years ago and immediately bought the videos. I have since bought the DVD and watched it again today. I had never read the novel (though I recall the name William Makepeace Thackeray from school), so I have no idea how accurate to the book this version is. However, previous reviewers seem to think it is as close as you can get. I love this mini-series so much. The somewhat dark humour and the love/hate for Becky is delicious. I love Natasha Little - first experiencing her acting abilities and beauty on 'This Life'. Strangely, the wonderfully grotesque nature of most of the characters reminds me of films like 'Strictly Ballroom' and 'Muriel's Wedding'. Odd I know, though they are also somewhat dark humoured films. Basically, this series is refreshingly un-Jane Austen like. Could you ever imagine 'Pride and Prejudice' opening with a large naked lady picking her nose while posing for a drunken painter whose young daughter is serving alcohol to his lecherous friends? Divine.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
As the name suggests Vanity fair is about pretensions and showing off
vanity. The backdrop is London and the age is early 19th century.
William Makepeace Thackray has written an unbelievable piece of
literature and this film does justice to the great story of human
imperfections. Story in my opinion is a complete opposite of 'Dr Jekyl
and Mr Hyde'. Dr Jekyl and Mr Hyde suggests that there is no pure good
but there is pure evil while this story says that there is no pure good
or pure evil. Whatever the truth is the film brings out the flavor of
the time and intention of the film clearly on screen.
I watched all six episodes of 50 minutes each in a single day. I was really mesmerized by the story and the direction. Actors are very good, characterization is very deep and every episode has a surprise element to it. Story doesn't finish until the last scene is over. I think it is just right neither overdone nor underplayed. There are certain flaws like actors don't age even after 10-12 years but the story is so good that you see them as grown up men and women psychologically.
I think all the actors were fine. Story was really supported by very good actors. Natasha Little was a delight to watch as a lady with grey shades. I haven't read the novel or knew anything about it. I had to chose between Mira Nair's 'Vanity Fair' and this one. It was easy I have left Mira Nair's 3 films in the middle including 'Kama Sutra'. Imagine how boring things can get. The film is really good but novel has to be a masterpiece.
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