Vanity Fair, an adaptation of William Makepeace Thackeray's opus, follows the story of a girl of humble means who rises in the ranks of 19th-century London society. Unfortunately, it's a costume-laden English period yawner, with a sorely miscast Reese Witherspoon in the lead. Where's Ismail Merchant and James Ivory when you need them?
In early 19th-century London, Becky Sharp (Reese Witherspoon), orphaned at a young age, resolves to conquer English society by any means possible. Becky befriends Amelia (Romola Garai), the daughter of a rich merchant, and takes a job as a governess for a cantankerous lord, Sir Pitt Crawley (Bob Hoskins). At the Crawley manor, she soon meets allies who help her in her quest, including Crawley's eccentric rich sister, Aunt Matilda (Eileen Atkins) and her beloved and dashing nephew, Rawdon Crawley (James Purefoy), with whom Becky falls in love. But when Rawdon and Becky secretly marry, Aunt Matilda's snobbishness shines through, and she cuts the newlyweds out of her will. To top it off, Napoleon invades Europe, sending Rawdon off to war. But wait, there's more. The war ends, and the reunited Becky and Rawdon, now in London with their young son, barely scrape by to make ends meet. Never forgetting her ultimate goal of gaining acceptance into London high society and living well, Becky finds a patron in the powerful Marquess of Steyne (Gabriel Byrne) and through his whims and connections, Becky is able to finally realize her dreams. But is the ultimate cost to social climbing too high? Of course it is.
Gwyneth Paltrow she ain't. Although Witherspoon certainly embodies Becky Sharp's spunky personality, the whole British period piece milieu just isn't her forte. She's a little Southern gal, for heaven's sakes, and wanders around like a lost lamb among the British cast, trying desperately not to break out into her signature twang. It may have been a better idea to make a modern adaptation of Vanity Fair, one in which Becky Sharp is indeed a good little Southern gal trying to make it on her own, without all the dark, Dickens-esque under tones and deep thoughts. It is curious that only a handful of American actresses, Paltrow included, can pull off the high-falutin' English act, while British actresses play Americans all the time. Hmmm. As for the gifted British cast, standouts include Hoskins as the ill-tempered but kind-hearted Pitt; Purefoy (Resident Evil) as the romantic yet ultimately tortured Rawdon; Atkins as the persnickety Aunt Matilda; Byrne as the mysterious, slightly malevolent benefactor Steyne and Rhys Ifans (Notting Hill) as an army captain who harbors an unrequited love for Amelia. But that's their job. They're English--these are their people.
''Ah! Which of us is happy in this world? Which of us has his desire? Or, having it, is satisfied?'' Oh, boy. Can you just feel the excitement pouring off the page in William Makepeace Thackeray's novel Vanity Fair? It must have been a daunting task indeed for screenwriter Julian Fellowes (Gosford Park) to condense the 800-page novel into this particular big-screen adaptation (it has been made into a feature film twice before, as well as a TV mini series) as well as for Indian director Mira Nair (Monsoon Wedding) in bringing the story to life; unfortunately, the inherent difficulties show. The plot and subplots--including the love triangle surrounding Amelia, her foolish love for a caddish soldier (played by Bend It Like Beckham's Jonathan Rhys Meyers) and the stalwart Capt. Dobbins--just seem to go on and on, and, as does her female lead, Nair just seems out of place with the material, even though Thackeray uses many references to India in the novel. Yes, the costumes are grand (and adequately hide Witherspoon's real-life pregnancy) and the scenery equally dark and lush; there's just simply isn't any Merchant/Ivory flair or Emma Thompson wit. It seems those days of A Room With a View, Howards End and Sense and Sensibility are over. Either that, or we've exhausted all the really good novels by the likes of E.M. Forster and Jane Austen.
Even though it's a valiant effort, Vanity Fair just lacks the necessary talent and oomph to propel it to the level of an elegant, entertaining, yet seemingly dying genre, of the English period piece.