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
A lot of pretty pictures, but is has nothing to do with Thackeray
If you hadn't gathered it from the movie itself, the bonus documentaries on the DVD will make it clear that this edition of Vanity Fair has at its root a fatal flaw. It attempts to portray Becky Sharp as a sympathetic, even admirable person. A plucky, Madonna-style powergirl. As a result, this is an extremely watered-down version of what Thackeray actually wrote. There is nothing nice about his novel, which is tremendously compelling and hilariously funny, but also coldly cynical. Becky is a brutal predator, who doesn't care a hoot about her child or her husband, and goes about exploiting everyone around her with the greatest zeal.She's closer akin to Hannibal Lecter than to Scarlet O'Hara. Reese Witherspoone's portrayal of the non-heroine blunts all the edges, and leaves us with a fairly uninvolving character whose motivations are not always easy to grasp. Other characters are similarly polished up. George Osborne isn't nearly as callous in his behavior to Amelia as he is in the novel. Dobbin is far too outspoken and powerful a figure whereas with Thackeray he is an utter wet noodle. The absurdity and cowardice of Jos Sedley is smothered in layers of oriental mystique. The dazzling Indian finale, shamelessly over the top, that we get by way of obligatory happy ending, would have us believe that Becky has gone off with him on a life of happy traveling, casting infatuated glances in his direction. In the book however, she simply leeches on him, and Jos besieges his acquaintances to protect him form her! "You don't know what a terrible woman she is". That woman is not in this movie. In this way, the film completely misses out on the essence of the story. It basically becomes a vehicle for a string of sumptuously executed pretty pictures. In the explicit attempt, voiced by Mira Nair herself, to bring the story to the screen as one relevant to modern audiences, rather than being just the next period piece, the exact opposite is achieved. This is beautifully executed but very tame and old-fashioned costume drama. Not even the ridiculous oriental dance scene starring Becky, which shows a complete lack of understanding of early 19th century mores, can change that. Of course, Thackeray's story needs no modernization at all - it is as recognizable today as it was 200 years ago. 130 minutes are not enough to do justice to the book either. All plot lines are reduced to their bare essentials; the psychology driving them is completely lost. One moment George Osborne is shunning Amelia, the next he marries her; one moment he is insulting Becky Sharp, the next he's inviting her to elope with him. At times it is almost as if you can hear the actors gasping for breath while hurrying along to get everything crammed in in the allotted time (two hours is already longer than most movie audiences can stand nowadays if the film isn't peppered with a proper barrage of CG special effects). That none of the acting stands out as particularly distinguished, with the exception of Eileen Atkins's portrayal of aunt Mathilda Crawley, is hardly surprising under these circumstances. Another thing that doesn't help believability is the fact that characters appear to have eternal youth. While we see toddlers growing up into adults, Becky, Amelia and others look exactly the same at the end of the movie as they did at the beginning. The one thing that may make this movie worthwhile to watch nonetheless, for some, is simply the visual beauty of it. Costumes, locations and sets are generally stunning, and the streets of London are teeming with people, animals and coaches. Given that the whole crew was even dragged to Jodhpur, India, to shoot a few minutes worth of footage, it is however hard to understand why the Brussels episode was shot in the courtyards of Hampton Court Palace, which constitute an unconvincing decor to anyone who knows what Belgian cities look like. What a strange experience it must have been for Natasha Little to play Jane Sheepshanks, the most goodly character in the story, and witness the insipid Becky of Reese Witherspoon, after having herself starred as the perfect embodiment of Miss Sharp in the BBC dramatization of the novel. That version is superior to this one on every count: it looks far more realistic, gives us the fleshed out characters in all their nastiness, stays close to Thackeray's sarcastic tone, and is in its own way just as beautifully visualized as this multimillion dollar project. If you want the next best thing to reading the book, the extra cost of that DVD is more than worth it.
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