Friday, October 15, 2010

Review: "Vanity Fair" is a Good Old Fashioned Costume Melodrama (Happy B'day, Mira Nair)

TRASH IN MY EYE No. 28 (of 2005) by Leroy Douresseaux

Vanity Fair (2004)
Running time: 137 minutes (2 hours, 17 minutes)
MPAA – PG-13 for some sensuality/partial nudity and a brief violent image
WRITERS: Matthew Faulk and Mark Skeet and Julian Fellowes (based upon the novel by William Makepeace Thackeray)
PRODUCERS: Janette Day, Lydia Dean Pilcher, and Donna Gigliotti
EDITOR: Allyson C. Johnson

DRAMA with elements of romance

Starring: Reese Witherspoon, James Purefoy, Romola Garai, Tony Maudsley, Rhys Ifans, Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, Bob Hoskins, Douglas Hodge, Meg Wynn Owen, Natasha Little, Eileen Atkins, Jim Broadbent, Robert Pattinson, and Gabriel Byrne

Born into the lower class, Rebecca “Becky” Sharp (Reese Witherspoon) becomes a relentless social climber in London society, circa 1820. She ascends the social ladder with her friend, Amelia Sedley (Romola Garai), who is from a noble, but broke family. Becky begins as a governess before marrying a financially challenged nobleman, Rawdon Crawley (James Purefoy), who is also a gambler. She eventually discovers herself to be as vain and as foolish as anyone born of noble blood.

I love costume dramas, especially English films of this type, so I was bound to be a sucker for director Mira Nair’s Vanity Fair, the film adaptation of William Makepeace Thackeray’s massive 19-century novel. I’ve never read the novel, but I could still see that something was amiss. Reese Witherspoon seems ill cast as Thackeray’s cunning anti-heroine. Her accent is shoddy, her acting range is limited, and she’s just playing her Legally Blonde character in an English costume drama. Luckily, the camera loves her, and she has a charming film personality, even when she’s wrong for a part.

Vanity Fair also swings back and forth between being riveting and tepid, although Ms. Nair injects some exotic charm in it via Indian culture in the form of music, dance, costume, and bit players. What turns the film to its better half is that Ms. Nair and her primary screenwriter, Oscar winner, Julian Fellowes (Gosford Park), are able to wring poignancy out of the British stiff upper lip by emphasizing the disastrous consequences of human vanity and pride, mostly resulting from class prejudice. The theme seems to be that the personal cost of pride to the characters in terms of lost love and lost loved ones who departed (either through death or personal exile) before reconciliation is too high. In this the film rings true.

Vanity Fair is also a gorgeous period film filled with lavish sets and sumptuous costumes. Even the examples of poverty in the film and the portrayal of the filthy London streets seem authentic. The film’s visual flair more than makes up for its shaky moments, and while Vanity Fair isn’t as good as classic Merchant Ivory films like A Room with a View and Howard’s End, this classic of British literature, adapted with a hint of Indian spice, will sate the appetite for good old costume drama.

7 of 10


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