Within a 15-minute stretch of Vanity Fair, war breaks out. Men bid their wives goodbye. The women try to escape their invaded city. The dead are buried and grieved for. A baby is born, learns to walk and grows to a nine-year-old boy. His parents show their growing marital discord.
That’s not Cliffs Notes. That’s a fast-food drive-thru for one of literature’s classic novels. But even the many who haven’t read William Makepeace Thackeray’s caste commentary will spot the problem plaguing many period-novel adaptations — condensing the story into easily hit high points.
No stranger to balancing plates, director Mira Nair brought focus to the multiple stories of her family drama Monsoon Wedding. At least she’s assembled a crack cast here that emotes strongly enough to carry through their absence from, at points, several reels of the film.
Reese Witherspoon finds the right blend of Elle Woods and Tracy Flick as Becky Sharp, whose name alone brands her as an outsider in a society full of Pitts, Crawleys, Osbornes and Sheepshanks. Orphaned as a small child, the now grown-up Becky assumes duties as governess for the Pitt-Crawley clan, headed by a snide, stubble-cheeked Bob Hoskins.
Becky is drawn to the charms of dashing Rawdon Crawley (James Purefoy), a soldier and gambler visiting his relations at the decrepit Pitt mansion. Nair, always excellent at discreetly erotic moments, creates a fluttery feeling in a carriage ride where Rawdon lightly brushes Becky’s fingers.
Her marriage to Rawdon begins her social climb, as it does a tangled web of deception and repressed love surrounding her best friend Amelia (Romola Garai), Amelia’s snooty husband George Osborne (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers) and George’s soldier chap Dobbin (Rhys Ifans).
Witherspoon looks good in Indian makeup. (One of Nair’s motifs in the beautiful-looking film is an exotic recreation of the country’s costumes and customs). And the character pierces pedigrees sharply with her outsider perspective and shows good duplicitous drive in the third act. Becky’s emotional prostitution on her way up the ladder is the only plot with room to breathe thematically.
But the best things about the movie are supporting players Eileen Atkins and Ifans. As Matilda, aunt to Rawdon, Atkins goes from sharp-tongued sarcasm to convincing heartache. And Ifans, best known as Hugh Grant’s roommate in Notting Hill, goes non-doofus as the film’s best character, carrying a stiff upper lip and a jones for Amelia. If only the film didn’t see fit to give him increasingly long hair and scraggly beards that makes him resemble a Monty Python character.
It’s not the only silly bit in the film, which apparently exists in a timeless vacuum where everyone looks the same in 1830 as they did in 1802. Maybe too much money was spent on the elegant costume design, bound for Oscar nominations. While those are stitched together perfectly, the story is not and its seams all too often show.