It is a natural part of the psychological make up of human beings to want to improve their lot. This striving for a better life has prompted social change and even violent revolution. It has also been the theme for literature, great and not so great. The novel Vanity Fair by 19th century author, William Makepeace Thackeray is concerned with the struggle of a poor young woman, Becky Sharp (Reese Witherspoon) to enter the rarified strata of the English high society. When her father, who was an alcoholic painter, dies Becky is left to fend for herself but is unwilling to commit to the typical prospects afforded a young woman lacking in social status. Back then, there were very few choices for such a woman, wife, religion, servant, prostitute or governess. Determined for the high life Becky begins her climb by obtaining a job at a finishing school. From there she manages to get a job as a governess for a less than popular or well received family of some limited social standing. Once in the family circle of Sir Pitt Crawley (Bob Hoskins) Becky helps to set the household right so they can hope to get into a will that ensures an infusing of much needed money. Naturally, Becky is not altruistic in all of this, by doing this she will improve her own lot one small step. As Becky seeks a suitable rich husband she rejoins a friend made at the school, Amelia (Romola Garai). Both girls wind up married and quickly pregnant but this is not enough for the cunning heroine. Becky’s husband Rawley, (James Purefoy) is called into military service to fight Napoleon at Waterloo prompting Becky to thoughts of the next, richer husband. After all, men die in war all the time. As one older woman notes about Becky "I had thought her a mere social climber. I see now she's a mountaineer." Becky uses every advantage she can muster to move up the English social structure one much planned step at a time.
It is difficult and expensive to film a period piece, the costumes and sets are far more elaborate than in the typical film and must be a de facto character in the film. In Vanity Fair this was successfully executed. The sets are a wonderful canvas upon which the figures act. As with many literary works of the 19th century the sharply defined social structure of England is held up for review. The first half of the film is a sharp satirical piece that does get mired in more melodrama that is absolutely necessary. The novels of Thackeray are extremely difficult to translate to the screen. More intellectually inclined cable networks like A&E have taken on this task with results closer to the book but that is because they can extend the time by making the film into a mini series. Running at two hours and fifteen minutes a lot of the original work had to be modified or omitted in order to portray the basic story. What does come across here is the complexity of English society and the lack of fluidity between levels. For a young woman today it may be strange to consider a world where your prospects where almost completely determined at birth but in the 19th century it took wiles and cunning to move up the social ladder.
Despite her still tender years, Reese Witherspoon has been in leading roles for over thirteen years. She has honed her craft so that she can carry any role she decides on doing. I have fully believed every character she has ever done and never found her performances anything but entertaining. She plays Becky to the hilt but never goes over the line. Her presentation gives a portrait of a young woman that is placed in a desperate situation but instead of becoming desperate herself uses what God gave her, brains and seductive beauty. Much like her teenaged, modern counterpart in Election, Beck has her eye set on the prize and will do whatever it takes to get there. Romola Garai is a perfect counterpoint to Witherspoon in her presentation of the best friend Amelia. Garai plays her as someone more accustomed to the privilege that Becky seeks, a girl that knows the system from a different viewpoint. She also shows that even a young woman of ranking is just as trapped as her lower class counterparts. She has only a life of being a wife and mother ahead of her with little chance for self expression. Gabriel Byrne as The Marquess of Steyne is great. Byrnes is the sort of actor that dives into a role head first. He pulls the audience with him and commands the screen with his acerbic wit, especially in the scene where he verbally tears apart an entire family.
Mira Nair as the director of the film displays firm grasp of the satirical elements of the original novel, at least, as mentioned previously, for the first half of the film. She has a flamboyant quality that comes across nicely on film. There is a bit of spectacle in the direction, especially in one scene where Becky engages in an Indian dance number. She sets the stage and turns her actors loose to do their work. The pacing of the film is a bit uneven; a little more time in the edit room would have helped to connect the two halves of the film. Still, she is a director with a bright future ahead.
Once again Universal does a great job of translating the film to DVD. The Dolby 5.1 audio track is well balanced, the rear speakers providing a rich ambience while providing clear dialogue. The anamorphic 2.35:1 video is vibrant. The lavish colors well translated to video. There were no artifacts to be seen and the palette was true. Among the extras there is a commentary track by the director. Nair goes into detail about what it takes to bring a period piece to the screen and what it was like to commit such a rich novel to film. A featurette about the women in the production gives a little bit of the behind the scenes work needed for a modern woman to portray a person in such a different society. Some deleted scenes and a making of featurette round off the extras. This is an entertaining vehicle for the talent of Ms. Witherspoon and with a PG-13 rating even the seductions are family friendly, a film most of the family can actually enjoy.