Vamping in the Victorian period

`Vanity Fair' is trashy fun with Reese Witherspoon

September 01, 2004|By Jay Boyar | Jay Boyar,ORLANDO SENTINEL

Costume dramas, let's face it, are often stuffy.

Some, like Nicholas Nickleby (2002), are so overstuffed they can barely move. But even some of the better ones - 1995's Sense and Sensibility, say - are a bit too insistently high-toned. You feel you should put on a tie just to watch.

Vanity Fair, the Reese Witherspoon costume drama, based on the William Makepeace Thackeray novel, doesn't have that problem. If anything, the film may be a tad trashy. Call it "Days of Our Victorian Lives."

A lot of the film's accessibility has to do with the wily and appealing performance of Witherspoon, who plays Rebecca "Becky" Sharp. The orphaned child of an artist and a chorus girl, this tireless social climber isn't really so different from Tracy Flick, the preternaturally ambitious adolescent that Witherspoon portrayed in the satirical 1999 masterpiece Election.

As Witherspoon plays Becky, there's a look in her eye that says she's up for anything. She wasn't born with a silver spoon in her mouth, but she's certainly not above swiping one.

Vanity Fair also plays to the strengths of India-born director Mira Nair. Because Nair's films are often at least partly in foreign languages and sometimes play at film festivals, they are frequently labeled as intellectual fare. But if you pull off their cross-cultural shells, you discover that Nair is actually a bit of a chuckle-head: Her overrated Monsoon Wedding, in particular, was even more of a soap opera than Vanity Fair.

Fortunately, Nair's usual limitations become virtues in the new film. There's more than enough intelligence in Thackeray's source material and in the script, by Julian Fellowes (Gosford Park), among others, to keep Vanity Fair from lapsing into goofiness.

Nair's approach is the polar opposite of Stanley Kubrick's strategy, in 1975, in adapting Thackeray's Barry Lyndon as a lofty, austere production. Nair's movie is livelier and much closer to the spirit of the author, who started as a humorist and loved to satirize snobs.

Vanity Fair also bears a certain resemblance to Gone With the Wind: Not only is it set against the backdrop of war (here, the Battle of Waterloo), but Becky and Scarlett O'Hara are cut from the same sturdy cloth. For the endlessly resilient Becky Sharp, tomorrow is always another day.

As we follow Becky's uphill journey through society, we meet her best friend, doe-eyed Amelia Sedley (Romola Garai, who redeemed parts of Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights). Thackeray diplomatically describes Amelia - who, unlike Becky, is not very sharp - as "guileless and good-natured."

Becky is courted by Rawdon Crawley (James Purefoy), a dashing gambler, and by William Dobbin (Rhys Ifans), a noble, long-suffering soldier. Sweet Amelia, meanwhile, is pursued by William's snooty friend, the sinister-looking George Osborne (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers).

Figuring strongly in the action are the Marquess of Steyne (Gabriel Byrne, in a finely modulated performance), an aristocratic admirer of Becky's late father's art, and Matilda (Eileen Atkins), the rich Crawley "spinster," each of whom becomes a Becky benefactor.

Thackeray, who was ambivalent about Becky, subtitled his book "A Novel Without a Hero." Nair seems to view Becky differently. Nair's heroine is unquestionably a social climber. And, yes, she's brazen, too shrewd by half and, at times, rather cold.

But this Becky Sharp is never malicious, and there's something about her spunk - her refusal to settle for her lowly lot in life - that resonates today. We like her drive, her fire, her zest - and her lack of stuffiness.

The Orlando Sentinel is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

Vanity Fair

Starring Reese Witherspoon, Romola Garai, Gabriel Byrne, Bob Hoskins

Directed by Mira Nair

Rated PG-13 (sensuality, partial nudity, brief violence)

Released by Gramercy Pictures

Time 140 minutes

Sun Score ***1/2

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