From the moment the theater lights dim, the audience of Vanity Fair is invited into an exotic world. Director Mira Nair beckons with a peacock’s feather in the simple but beautiful opening titles. Unfortunately, this sort of simplicity makes up the feeble backbone of the movie. Nair delights us with stunning visuals and cinematography by Declan Quinn, who also shot Nair’s Monsoon Wedding, but she gives us no one to care about, nothing to mull over as the final credits roll.
The title page of Thackeray’s novel reads, “Vanity Fair: A Novel without a Hero.” There’s no hero in the book because there is not a single character who isn’t tremendously flawed. But we always have someone to root for, even if we find ourselves despising the same character in the next chapter. Nair’s vision of Thackeray’s tale is without a hero, though, because someone forgot that a movie’s characters ought to have, well, character.
Vanity Fair is an examination of aristocratic class structure, evocative of both Austen’s Mansfield Park and Wharton’s The House of Mirth, both of which have been made into dazzlingly good movies. We meet Rebecca Sharp (Reese Witherspoon) in her father’s workshop, then we flash forward to Miss Pinkerton’s finishing school, where Becky — now an orphan — is to make herself useful while also receiving an education. Becky is smarter than her schoolmates and more worldly, but she is also penniless. She has nothing but contempt for Miss Pinkerton and her school and has gotten herself a position as governess for two daughters of a baronet.
Between leaving Miss Pinkerton’s and taking her post, Becky stays briefly with her only friend, Amelia Sedley (Romola Garai), where we meet Amelia’s family, her fiance, and his best friend (Amelia’s unrequited admirer) before moving on to the baronet’s residency, Queen’s Crawley. At Queen’s Crawley we’re introduced to the decidedly un-aristocratic baronet, Sir Pitt Crawley (Bob Hoskins), and his oddly diverse family and connections, the most important being Miss Crawley (Eileen Atkins), the baronet’s wealthy spinster sister-in-law, and Rawdon Crawley (James Purefoy), the baronet’s youngest son.
During this horse-race of introductions, it’s established that Amelia’s mother dislikes Becky, as do Amelia’s long-established fiance, George Osborne (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), and his best friend, William Dobbin (Rhys Ifans). And in what is the most jolting sequence in the movie, Amelia’s brother, Joseph (Jim Broadbent), seems on the verge of proposing marriage to Becky. Nair presents us with this confusing web of relationships, but she doesn’t make us believe it.
In fact, she seems to have approached the narrative as one might approach a grocery list. Of course, one must not discount the damage that screenwriters Matthew Faulk, Julian Fellowes, and Mark Skeet wreak on the novel. Only after presenting the cast, is an attempt made to recreate the temptations, desires, and disappointments of the realm Thackeray called Vanity Fair. Unfortunately, we’re already well into the movie, more prepared to find amusement in a character’s follies than to long for his happiness.
This is problematic when we are obviously meant to hope for Becky’s eventual happiness. Thackeray’s Becky was a fantastic manipulator of men, smart, confident, and unabashedly determined. Nair’s Becky is smart, confident, and determined, but we’re not allowed into the workings of her mind. Certainly the novelist has the advantage over a filmmaker in allowing us into a character’s thoughts, but Nair doesn’t even make the effort. Witherspoon is extremely likable, her generation’s Julia Roberts perhaps, America’s sweetheart. But her performances have never particularly impressed me — from Pleasantville to American Psycho to the Legally Blonde films, the characters she plays are never especially complex. So one could pin this glaring fault on Witherspoon, but the other characters are unforgivably one-dimensional, as well.
Jonathan Rhys Meyers’ George Osborne is particularly troubling. Rhys Meyers offers us nothing more than a pretty boy with a sneer. If acting were this easy, there wouldn’t be a metrosexual around without a career in film. And the other characters offer us little more: Amelia is the good-natured innocent, Joseph the cartoonish oaf, Dobbin the sensitive moralist, Sir Pitt Crawley the buffoon, Rawdon the brave husband and soldier, Miss Crawley the aristocratic hypocrite. The other characters, though necessary for plot movement, deserve no description at all. Surely this universal shallowness is less the fault of inept acting than of a superficial screenplay and limited directorial vision.
Which brings us to the point: Nair’s film doesn’t move beyond generalities and familiar plot twists to successfully evoke this time and place, to transport us to another world. Certainly the sets and costumes are a large part of a period film’s effect, but they’re window dressing; for the recreation to work, the characters must be believably of a bygone era. When Patricia Rozema brought Austen’s Mansfield Park to life, the characters were complexly developed, the romances subtly suggestive, the struggles affecting. When Terrence Davies tackled Wharton’s The House of Mirth, it was impossible not to grieve for Lily Bart’s despair. Both directors brought us stories of social ascendance in times we’ll only ever know through books or films, and both did so in a way that allowed us to feel we’d suddenly been shown a window into the past.
Nair ably presents the decadence of early-19th century British aristocracy, but just as costumes and scenery often hide the true nature of a person or place, Vanity Fair offers us nothing but the shallowest perception.
Ryan Lindsey previously wrote political commentary and the occasional movie review for Pajiba.
Film | May 12, 2006 | Comments ()