by Mick LaSalle
San Francisco Chronicle, September 1, 2004
Witherspoon makes a strong, sly Becky Sharp in Nair’s upbeat, feisty take on ‘Vanity Fair’
“Vanity Fair” is a conscientious adaptation of the William Makepeace Thackeray novel. A lot of things happen, all of it fairly absorbing, some of it rendered vividly. There’s a nice languorous economy about the movie — scenes have time to breathe, and environments are inhabited, even as the story never flags. Yet something’s missing in director Mira Nair’s treatment — specifically, a point of view about the material, a compelling reason for this historical excavation beyond the fact that Reese Witherspoon makes a convincing Becky Sharp.
She certainly does that. With Witherspoon in the role, we understand, without requiring any explanation, that “Vanity Fair” is an essentially upbeat story, even though it’s about a 19th century orphaned girl forced to live by her wits in a culture that would just as soon toss her into the gutter. Witherspoon’s feistiness, intelligence and resiliency allow us, from the beginning, to put our money on Becky.
Witherspoon is in many ways like Miriam Hopkins, who starred in the 1935 “Becky Sharp,” a “Vanity Fair” adaptation remembered today only for being one of the first color features. Like Hopkins, Witherspoon is American and Southern, little, smart and loquacious, with a smile that’s engaging without being entirely reassuring. What she lacks is the edge of malice Hopkins brought to the role, the anger under the high spirits that served Hopkins particularly well in the first scene, in which Becky is released from a girl’s school that has exploited her for years. In the new “Vanity Fair,” that scene is a pale shadow.
But Witherspoon has her own approach to the part, and it wears well. Her Becky is not just shrewd and hungry. She has also an instinct for life, a quality that encompasses a gift for survival but is bigger than merely that. Witherspoon’s Becky has the gifts of extra confidence, extra energy, extra strength, extra drive, extra instinct. She operates on a level that others can’t touch, and sometimes she gives the impression that, instead of rolling over other people, she’d really rather share her gifts and have some company in these higher reaches of human function.
The movie is the tale of Becky’s adventures, an episodic saga that covers a couple of decades and includes many opportunities and reversals. In sentimental novels, 19th century heroines want love, security and a decent husband. Becky wants what heroes want: money, success and glory. She has no specific talent, just a lot of personality and a sense of mission. She gets her first foothold in the home of a childhood friend, Amelia (Romola Garai), and soon meets the people she’ll be dealing with over the years.
Jonathan Rhys-Meyers gets one of his patented roles as Georgie, Amelia’s fiance, the posturing son of a rich merchant. No one can play rich, scowling snobs as well as Rhys-Meyers, who has a talent for making audiences hate him and yet feel for him at the same time. He suggests a vulnerability within Georgie, whose aristocratic ambitions have all to do with wanting to escape the shadow of a cruel, greedy father (Jim Broadbent).
Becky’s trajectory allows her to witness the upper reaches of London society, from the merchant class all the way to the king. Along the way she meets Pitt the Elder, a slovenly fellow with an estate in disrepair (lustily played by Bob Hoskins). On the other end of the spectrum, she gets to know the icy Lord Steyne, whose salon is at the center of London society. It’s Gabriel Byrne, as Steyne, who gets off one of the film’s best lines. He turns on a member of his family and yells, “There’s no one in this household who doesn’t wish you dead.” A good, all-purpose putdown.
Besides Witherspoon, the strongest impression is made by James Purefoy as Rawdon Crawley, a manly and sincere soldier who, in peacetime, is just as manly and sincere but rather useless, a gambler who’s not all that lucky. But then he’s lucky in love. Crawley’s leave-taking of Becky, before the battle of Waterloo, is the film’s single most heartfelt moment by far, the one place where the movie becomes more than clever and goes to a more human place.
“Vanity Fair” is inevitably a feminist tale, because Becky will not be kept down. But there’s another way of looking at the story, which doesn’t preclude the feminist treatment, and which seems potentially richer. That’s to acknowledge the story’s dark side, its inescapable revelation that in 19th century England a woman had to be a genius to achieve success — or even to fight life to a draw.