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
After asking Reese Witherspoon to get pregnant for the role (as a joke, because she thought Reese was too thin), Mira Nair was delighted when Witherspoon announced she was expecting after all. See more »
"Now sleeps the crimson petal", published 1847, does not feature in the novel as stated below; Becky sings "religious songs of Mozart" to please Lady Steyne. Rawdon junior was born in 1816 and is still a child, so Lord Steyne's party takes place in the 1820s. See more »
Both a visual feast and a well-told, heartbreaking story
'Vanity Fair' is the perfect title for this story, showing us a world of cold characters with impersonal motives; a world where marriage is just another move in a chess game where the opponent is poverty and, perhaps more importantly, unpopularity. At the center of this movie is Becky Sharp (Reese Witherspoon), a beautiful blonde from a terribly poor family (her father was a talented but poor artist). We meet her first when she is a young girl, and we see that she is already stubborn and manipulative, when she demands ten guineas for a portrait of her mother that is being sold to a wealthy aristocrat (Gabriel Byrne) for four. He agrees, probably not because he thinks it's worth it, but because he admires the fire and spirit in the young girl. He'll come into play later.
We see her next after completing finishing school and being sent off to be a governess for Sir Pitt Crawley (Bob Hoskins), a scruffy old man who's just barely getting by, with a dusty mansion and rude servants. She leaves for Pitt with her friend Amelia (Romola Garai), who is engaged to an officer George Osborne (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers). Amelia's engagement does not stop her from talking to Becky about the benefits of marrying a wealthy man, and it is here that we first see the mindset of most of the women in the film. Since they don't have many promising career prospects (those were for the men) they want to seduce a rich man to gain wealth, and popularity, and happiness too, I guess.
And Becky is great at playing the game. When she stays with Amelia's family in London before going to the Crawleys, she meets Amelia's awkward (and heavy) brother (Tony Maudsley), a wealthy man from India, and starts a seduction that is in a way kind of obvious, but she knows that the insecure Joseph couldn't possibly see through it. And he doesn't, he wants to marry her, and she wants that, but it's George who talks him out of it.
So, Becky is finished with her detour and moves to the Crawley's, where she teaches his kids perfect French and even cleans up the mansion when his wealthy sister Matilde (Eileen Atkins) arrives. Matilde is an undeniable snob who claims to have a romantic heart, but with mean put-downs ready for everyone in the house. She takes a liking to Becky for her own cleverness and invites her to live with her and her nephew Rawdon Crawley (James Purefoy) in London. Becky accepts, of course, it's another step up.
So, she is back in London and reunites with Amelia, George, and George's soldier friend William Dobbin (Rhys Ifans). She also recognizes Matilde's neighbor, Lord Steyne, the man who bought her mother's portrait all those years ago. She's back in the game, but she falls prey to her heart and elopes with Rawdon, angering Matilde enough to cut Rawdon out of her will (she loves romantic stories, she says, but not in real life!).
Becky hasn't been completely consumed by her love, though. She still has that cunning agenda of her own, which includes getting pregnant in hopes of gaining sympathy from Matilde, and attending all the major parties, shows and banquets in London despite her lower class.
But Rawdon is a gambler and their wealth and public image starts to drop significantly. This is when we see the extent of Becky's agenda, when she accepts Steyne as her mentor, despite his A) being a horrible man and B) clearly wanting Becky for his bedroom, not his student. But Steyne is seductive in his own right, and buys Becky the most expensive and beautiful jewelry, shows her to great parties and even casts her as the lead in a dance show he directed. Their relationship is one of the most intriguing points of the film, kind of similar to that of Fast Eddie Felson and Bert Gordon, and Laura Hunt and Waldo Lydecker.
Despite most of its characters being cunning and sinister, 'Vanity Fair' is a distinctly moral movie. Pitt Crawley Jr. (Douglas Hodge) is awkward and kind of dull, but his honesty and kindness gives him a stable, happy life, and Joseph's own earnestness pays off for him in the end. But the most important is the story of William Dobbin's undying love for Amelia, and how he's so gentlemanly about it. He doesn't urge her into adultery, and when she mistakes a piano he's bought for her for a present from George he doesn't correct her. I won't say how this story ends, but it'll most likely pull a tear from the girls in the audience. Ifans' is a fantastic, heartbreaking performance, the best of the movie.
Mira Nair's direction is awesome as well, what other director could make a passable (even good) glittery, belly-dancing scene in a Victorian drama. The Oscar for costume design will most certainly go to this, and its set design makes the best competition to 'The Terminal' so far this year.
As for acting Oscars, well, the way the movie switches from story to story doesn't quite let us get to know most of the characters, but some great performances can still be found here. Particularly Rhys Ifans, whose performance is so quiet and strong, and Eileen Atkins, who is perfect and hilarious, a true scene-stealer of her performance (and maybe even Byrne, too).
And then there's Witherspoon, in one of her best performances as Becky Sharp, the girl who, after learning her lesson by the end, is so stubborn that she's at it again, 7.5/10.
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