—About this Film
When “Vanity Fair” was first published in 1847-48, author William Makepeace Thackeray subtitled his classic “A Novel Without A Hero.” In serial installments, the Indian-born writer satirized the universal human folly of seeking after the treasures of Vanity Fair – money, prestige and social status – as the primary aim in life.
The meaning behind Thackeray’s subtitle is lost in the latest cinematic interpretation of the classic novel (the 11th since 1911) by Indian-born director Mira Nair. In an era when Hollywood screenwriters study the hero’s journey as a common framework for successful films, it was perhaps inevitable that ruthlessly determined Becky Sharp would be cast as a hero, rather than as someone who achieves her ambition at tremendous cost to the lives of those around her.
Portrayed by actress Reese Witherspoon, who won the hearts of the American movie-going public in light comedies such as “Legally Blonde” and “Sweet Home Alabama,” Sharp becomes yet another woman fighting against social conventions to achieve her goals. While that still makes an interesting and enjoyable 2-hour and 17-minute film, fans of the 19th-century story of the struggle for social recognition in British society may be disappointed. The film fails to reach the critically acclaimed status of the novel because, in the end, it does not address the human cost of such social ambition.
The story follows the life of Becky Sharp, the orphaned daughter of a poor artist and a French opera girl. Although cultured and educated, Sharp is destined to life as a governess. So she sets out to marry well to climb the ladder of British society. Becky leaves finishing school with a wealthy yet sheltered and submissive friend Amelia, who is Becky’s exact opposite. When Becky pursues Amelia’s oldest brother Joseph, Amelia’s fiancé, George, discourages his future brother-in-law from marrying beneath his family’s social standing.
In her first position as a governess, Becky charms the wealthy sister of her employer with her culture and education. Treated as a confidante, Becky begins to experience some of the trappings of wealth. A particularly poignant scene occurs when Becky receives a sudden marriage proposal from her employer, the aging Sir Pitt Crawley. Becky tearfully has to refuse what she has long sought -- marrying well -- because she already has secretly married Crawley’s youngest son, Rawdon, who is disinherited by his wealthy aunt.
Yet Becky seems to persevere, charming those within the elite social circles. “I thought her a mere social climber,” one of the envious society women says of her. “I now see that she’s a mountaineer.” After the birth of her son, Becky finds a powerful patron, who can help her realize her dreams, but at what cost? Ultimately, the film glosses over the eventual impact of such relentless social climbing on Becky herself, ending on a positive note that is uncharacteristic to the novel.
But on the journey to that point, for the most part, the plot of Vanity Fair stays pretty true to the book, although Reese Witherspoon’s Becky Sharp is a much kinder, gentler version. While Witherspoon wrestles with British accents and none of the six principal characters seem to age, the character’s perseverance and determination come through.
There are many things about Vanity Fair to like. The cast surrounding Witherspoon is outstanding. You’ll not see a more colorful, more artfully decorated film this year. Yet for filmgoers seeking deeper truth, all may be vanity.