ITV and Amazon’s adaptation of Vanity Fair is three episodes in, as of Sunday night. Starring Olivia Cooke as Becky Sharp and a whole host of familiar faces from British TV, such as Martin Clunes, Suranne Jones, Frances de la Tour and Anthony Head, it’s a classic Sunday night period drama to take us into Autumn. And if that sounds like your cup of tea, it’s an absolute delight.
Cooke looks like a cross between Jenna Coleman and Rose Byrne, and she is perfect as Becky. Surrounded by simpering morons, hypocrites and grotesques, she lets the audience in on her schemes with fleeting (and sparingly used) looks to camera before selecting a performance designed to manipulate whoever is with her. She is a character of contrasts; she conforms yet rebels, seeking to change the system while intending to profit from it. This is best summed up with her references to France, crying Vive Napoleon to shock and scandalise Miss Pinkerton, and using her favourite fib — being descended from the French aristocratic Montmorency family — to shame and impress those who look down on her, thus simultaneously claiming both revolutionary and establishment ideals, neither of which are wholly genuine. Every move is calculated based on how it would benefit her. There’s a refreshing honesty about her selfishness and her pursuit of power, which (again, just 3 episodes in) has yet to turn cruel. Give it time, though…
Those she fools, she fools utterly. She is sad orphan Becky with Amelia, wide-eyed coquette Becky with Jos, fun conspiratorial Becky with the children, hard-to-get Becky with Rawdon, and clever nursemaid / confidante Becky with Matilda. Those who see straight through her are those who are also playing the game, “striving for what is not worth having,” though there are a few notable exceptions: Sir Pitt’s youngest children just seem to appreciate her skills, while the servants of those she exploits simply resent her for trying to be better than them. Sam in particular has an excellent ‘seriously?’ face. It seems that no-one likes an ambitious social climber, except the children — and probably the audience; most of the rich and powerful people she manipulates are so terrible that you can’t help cheering her on.
Take Sir Pitt, for instance. Played by Martin Clunes as a miserly, lecherous, irascible bumpkin, Sir Pitt’s greatest joy is in suing his neighbours, and seconds after the death of his wife, his face lights up and he charges off to propose to someone less dull. Back in London, Mr and Mrs Sedley pretend to be kind, but show their racist side in private. The Sedleys, George and Aunt Matilda are all 19th century NIMBY characters, professing kind, liberal and revolutionary ideas respectively, but horrified at the notion of having to confront anything too close to home.
Nearly everyone is on the make in Vanity Fair, and compared to the shameless toadying of the Crawleys, Becky is relatively subtle. Aunt Matilda’s money gives her the power to be as fabulously obnoxious to her relatives as possible, knowing that no-one would dare to question her, which makes her as formidable as Lady Bracknell but with the acerbic bite of Olenna Tyrell. She’s brilliant. Becky and Matilda together are certainly a force to be reckoned with, for a short time at least.
Chumming up to money is rather a Plan B though; Becky’s main route to financial security is to marry well. Horrified at the prospect of being sent to “darkest Hampshire” as a spinster governess, she makes a frantic play for Joseph Sedley only to be thwarted by Amelia’s beau, George. Once at her post, she wrangles herself a promotion and then sets her sights on the handsome figure of Rawdon. Neither man stands a chance… Nor does Sir Pitt, though his declaration of love comes rather too late, much to Becky’s chagrin.
There are only two Actually Good People in the world of Vanity Fair — both of whom are, whisper it, a bit dull. Amelia really is a sweet young woman who just wants to be a good friend. And Dobbin — good old Dobs — is the Andrew-Lincoln-in-Love, Actually character, and can usually be found holding the shawls, paying for the drinks, and hating every second of being the third wheel to Amelia and George. You’ll get your time, Dobs. Hang in there.
There are a lot of fun touches in the show. In the novel, the satirical voice of the narrator welcomes the reader to Vanity Fair, like a catty David Attenborough encouraging us to view the strange and terrible creatures of the world he presents. In the show, we have a gloriously top-hatted Michael Palin as Thackeray, the ringleader of the fair, with the main characters on a carousel — sitting pretty and going nowhere, a fitting metaphor for all their ambitious efforts. The opening credits are set to All Along The Watchtower, and there is some playfulness with the closing credits as well, such as the second episode’s use of Material Girl.
Unlike much of the period drama of recent years, you can see and hear what is happening! There’s no mumbling, though Sir Pitt’s accent might give you some difficulty if you’re not from round these parts. (His accent is West Country rather than Hampshire, but it seems to be in order to emphasise his roughness rather than to point to a local area, which is a bit harsh on West Country accents.) If you find it irritating when period drama scenes are shot by candlelight in the name of authenticity, then there isn’t too much to annoy you here. There was one strange aspect of the lighting; some scenes are shot with a kind of dreamy backlighting, which I would have analysed had I not thought that my glasses were dirty or that I was going blind. Please don’t frighten me like that, Vanity Fair.
When reading the novel or watching an adaptation of it, the question many wrestle with is: Is it OK to like Becky? Modern versions often play with this, for example casting an actress so inherently likeable (like Reese Witherspoon, in Mira Nair’s 2004 production) that you can’t help but be on her side. Others might edit some of Becky’s more questionable actions in order to make her less difficult. We saw Reese Witherspoon’s Becky ride off into the sunset with Jos, but then the credits rolled, cutting out the rather terrible accusations that followed this in the novel. We aren’t far enough into the series to know where this is going, but the showrunner, Gwyneth Hughes, sees Becky Sharp as a sympathetic character who has to fight for survival, rather than just an amoral opportunist. I’d pitch her as somewhere in the middle. This Becky is angry “with the world”, and it’s a world that truly sucks. It’s a world full of racists, snobs and hypocrites, and so I tend to see Becky as fabulous in context; set against the backdrop of all those terrible people, and the sweet but desperately dull people, Becky is fun. You laugh with her, and laugh at almost everyone else. But you wouldn’t want to cross Becky or get in her way. There’s more than a little bit of Becky Sharp in Natalie Dormer’s portrayal of Margaery Tyrell. Like Margaery, Becky has fools and horrors to work with; this doesn’t deter either of them from pursuing their ambition. It might not be an ambition worth having, and it might be ruinous in the end, but we can enjoy watching the carousel ride for a while.
Header Image Source: ITV / Amazon