VANITY FAIR directed by Mira Nair, written by Matthew Faulk, Julian Fellowes and Mark Skeet from the novel by William MakepeaceThackeray, produced by Janette Day, Lydia Dean Pilcher and Donna Gigliotti, with Reese Witherspoon, James Purefory, Gabriel Byrne, Jim Broadbent, Romola Garai and Bob Hoskins. 137 minutes. An Odeon release. Opens Wednesday (September 1). For venues and times, see Movies, page 80. Rating: NNN Rating: NNN
It reveals nothing of the plot but everything of the method to note that at the end of Mira Nair's Vanity Fair, Reese Witherspoon rides an elephant.
Pert and pointy up there on that leathery beast, she can only be a symbol of something. Beyond the brute fact of the elephant, Vanity Fair is about how Nair has her way with the inviolable good cheer of Witherspoon's image and the starch of Thackeray's novel.
Witherspoon plays Becky Sharp, a girl born into uncertainty, raised an orphan and thrown to work as a governess. But Becky aspires above her station, which sends her clawing up the social ladder in early 19th-century Europe. Pitting Becky against a succession of disapproving ladies and callous lords, Vanity Fair could be the template for everything from Jackie Collins novels to The Marriage Of Maria Braun. That it's also now the name of envy's magazine of record only makes sense.
Thackeray might have written the novel to illuminate both the pretensions and charms of English high society, but Nair (Monsoon Wedding, Kama Sutra) colours that illumination with gender questions and geopolitics that speak to right now. Her Vanity Fair is a post-colonial project set in the middle of colonial times.
Early on in the film, Becky pops a green chili in her mouth and proclaims, "India. I cannot think of anyplace I'd rather be." Whether or not Thackeray wrote those words, they take on a particular meaning after the fall of British India, in a film by Mira Nair, from the mouth seen in Legally Blonde.
Nobody plays social climbers better than Witherspoon, so Becky Sharp fits her the way scum fits Colin Farrell. She suffers snub after snub in England, France and Germany, but her chin remains unbowed. In Election and the Legally Blonde films, that spirit came from relentless American optimism. It's interesting to see her play British class resentment instead.
The shift for Nair is even more fascinating to watch. Going where countryman Ismail Merchant never dared with his literary adaptations, she pulls what would have been background details to Thackeray's readers right to the foreground of her film. Like Patricia Rozema's Mansfield Park, Vanity Fair underlines how England's social hierarchy was founded on foreign wars and colonizing power grabs.
The battle of Waterloo interrupts the story's parlour games with blood and bone, while India and "the Orient" produce spoils and fantasies for London's leisure class. In one very strange scene, Becky daubs kohl around her eyes and does a slithery dance at a party.
All this is great stuff for the café or the classroom after watching the movie. But dramatically, the film stumbles. The narrative is episodic and never builds momentum.
Witherspoon also seems a bit adrift. Where Election saw her sinking her teeth into her character's sociopathic ambition, here she fails to fully commit. If Becky's slights are real, her motives are mixed. Witherspoon doesn't appear fully cognizant about when she's meant to be perky and when perky should descend into ego.
Mira Nair has every right to revisit and refashion Vanity Fair according to her own concerns. Thackeray no doubt had his own fictional models to reinvent. But this film would be so much more satisfying if the drama were as provocative as the ideas.