The British Empire flowers; exotic India colors English imaginations. Becky Sharp, the orphaned daughter of a painter and a singer, leaves a home for girls to be a governess, armed with pluck, a keen wit, good looks, fluent French, and an eye for social advancement. Society tries its best to keep her from climbing. An episodic narrative follows her for 20 years, through marriage, Napoleonic wars, a child, loyalty to a school friend, the vicissitudes of the family whose daughters she instructed, and attention from a bored marquess who collected her father's paintings. Honesty tempers her schemes. No aristocrat she, nor bourgeois, just spirited, intelligent, and irrepressible. Written by
This is an entertaining movie that goes over two hours, but I really don't understand why it was made. Sprawling stories spanning several decades with several subplots involving dozens of characters are totally defensible on the printed page, where we can always go back and remind ourselves which character is which and how this character is related to that one. But this type of thing makes no sense whatsoever in a film. Unless a viewer has a phenomenal memory, such a story on film invariably leads to confusion and to my asking myself, "now wait a minute, whose brother is this, and whose son?"
So that is one of the principal problems with this film.
There are several other problems as well. Reese Witherspoon is badly miscast. She simply lacks Becky Sharp's bite. In fact, the whole film lacks Thackeray's bite. Reese does a good job with the British accent, but it just doesn't work. She is just too American for the role. Weren't there any British actresses available, or were the producers just relying on Reese's star power? Reese is just too nice to play Becky.
It has often been said that Becky Sharp was the model for Scarlett O'Hara in "Gone With the Wind," although Margaret Mitchell denied this. Even so, I kept visualizing Vivien Leigh in this role and imagining how perfect she would have been. I think Mira Nair was thinking of GWTW as well, because there are several scenes in the film that are obvious homages to it. First there are the battle scenes during the Battle of Waterloo, followed by a panoramic view of the carnage following the battle, complete with corpses strewn all over the battlefield. This was an obvious homage to the crane shot over Atlanta in GWTW. The final fight between Becky and her husband reminded me of the final fight between Scarlett and Rhett in GWTW. I half expected the husband to say "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn."
Another flaw involves the Indian director Nair's inability to resist bringing in some Bollywood type scenes, particularly one involving Becky leading an Indian type dance, with Indian music, before the king, no less, and to thunderous applause.
And yet another thing: this film spans at least twenty, maybe twenty-five or thirty, years in Becky's life after she graduates from finishing school--I am not counting the one scene of her as a child--yet the character never ages. Neither do any of the other characters. Maybe the makeup staff went on strike?
But most of these problems won't even be noted by someone who hasn't read the book, so if you haven't, go ahead and see it; you'll probably be entertained. And if you are someone like me who loves the book, you may not be able to resist seeing it anyway. But Thackeray was never so soft.
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