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USA 2004
Directed by
Mira Nair
137 minutes
Rated PG

Reviewed by
Luke Jackson
1.5 stars

Vanity Fair

Synopsis: It's the early 1800's. Napoleon has been incarcerated - supposedly vanquished - and England's aristocracy has returned to the perennial dance of flirtation and betrothal. Becky Sharp (Reese Witherspoon) longs to be part of their world, but with an opera singer for a mother and an artist for a father, she doesn't have the pedigree. With only her wit and charm to rely on, she challenges and beguiles a bored upper class, while pursuing the eligible bachelors around her with a vigour only dreamed of by the heroines of Jane Austen. As one acquaintance notes, "I knew she was a social climber. I didn't know she was a mountaineer."

The most successful adaptations of William Makepeace Thackeray's classic novel 'Vanity Fair' have traditionally been for the small screen. With a mini-series running for between four and six hours, a truly carnival-like atmosphere - the 'fair' referred to in the story's title - can be fully realised, minor characters making notable appearances, fading away for a while, then reappearing with a flourish. The greatest challenge for any director of a film adaptation, therefore, seems to be understanding which characters and events may be omitted without lessening the story's entertainment value or dramatic impact. With a screenplay by the writer of Gosford Park (2001) directed by Mira Nair of Monsoon Wedding (also 2001) fame, and starring Reese Witherspoon, Bob Hoskins and Gabriel Byrne amongst others, this newest adaptation should be exceptional. Instead, it's completely unsatisfying.

Mira Nair is undoubtedly a talented filmmaker. Her prize-winning first feature, Salaam Bombay! was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the 1988 Academy Awards and in 2000, she achieved commercial success with the delightful Monsoon Wedding, a perfect blend of compelling storytelling and likeable characters with rich visuals. Unfortunately, Vanity Fair lacks the clarity of Nair's previous work; she simply doesn't seem to know what kind of film she's trying to make. Is it an epic? The span of the plot (around 35 years), and the movie's duration would suggest so, but moments of dramatic significance are repeatedly left out in order to cram in events of little consequence. A drama? I wasn't moved, and judging by the mutterings of other audience members, neither were they. A comedy? Vanity Fair got a few laughs, but too often they were at the actors' expense.

The most remarkable feature of Nair's adaptation is the Indian makeover of nineteenth-century Europe. Costumes are sumptuous; parties are decorated with brightly coloured silk, fire-twirlers and gondolas shaped like petals; and exotic fauna from afar is contrasted with pigs raking through muck in the streets of London. But, striking as they may be, the visuals are problematic. Not only does the film feel 'staged', but Becky's wardrobe would be impossibly expensive for an impoverished Governess, and the men's lacy tunics, thigh-high leather boots, and red velvet military uniforms are so ostentatious they're farcical. Not major problems, perhaps, if this were a cheeky play upon the Regency period melodrama, but it's not - the script is too leaden, and the performances too painfully earnest.

Lacking the pure enjoyment of Monsoon Wedding and the subtle social commentary of Gosford Park, Vanity Fair is a great example of squandered potential. Like Becky's laughter as she contemplates wooing her first target, it's both too self-conscious...and too trite. With such obvious themes as 'the impact of class distinctions on culture' and 'the role of women in 19th Century Europe', school students should start praying that this adaptation dies a quiet death in DVD obscurity, never to be resurrected as an English text.




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