Vanity Fair (2004)

Starring: Reese Witherspoon, James Purefoy, Eileen Atkins, Bob Hoskins, Romola Garai, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Jim Broadbent, Geraldine McEwan

Directed by: Mira Nair

Rating: 1 2 3 4

Reese Witherspoon as Becky Sharp in Vanity Fair

Introducing Becky Sharp. Ambitious adventuress and cynical schemer with a heart of (tarnished) gold. 'I thought she was a social climber,' her friend Amelia's mother remarks sourly. 'Now I see she's more a mountaineer.'

The daughter of a Parisian opera chorus girl and a struggling artist, we first meet little Becky hustling her father's punters in his seedy painter's garret. Fast forward a few years and she's still very much on the make as she leaves Miss Pinkerton's academy for young ladies, where she's supplemented her studies with a dose of good hard skivvying. Marriage, of course, is the only way up for a girl down on her luck, but a brief stay with her friend Amelia Sedley (I Capture the Castle's Romola Garai) fails to net her the wealthy husband she desires, when Amelia's kindly, jolly brother is warned off by his sister's fiancée, the dashing but clearly dastardly Captain George Osborne (Jonathan Rhys Meyers and a bucket load of Brylcream).

Instead, resourceful Becky reverts to plan B and heads for Queen's Crawley, the decaying family seat of Sir Pitt Crawley (Bob Hoskins in a badly fitting wig), where she is to act as governess to his two young daughters. Her high spirits and quick wits soon endear her to the entire family, and especially to Sir Pitt's heiress sister, the redoubtable spinster Matilda (Eileen Atkins), who whisks her away to London as her companion. But of course Becky is not content to remain the beautiful young foil to a cantankerous old woman, and it's not long before she's ensnared Sir Pitt's younger son, Rawdon Crawley (James Purefoy), with her feminine wiles. A pity, then, that Matilda cuts the pair off without a penny, reducing them to a life of genteel scrounging as they attempt to make ends meet with Rawdon's winnings at the card table.

James Purefoy as Captain Rawdon Crawley and Reese Witherspoon as Becky Sharp in Vanity Fair

Next stop Waterloo, where Becky's sassy style makes her an instant hit, despite the best attempts of the stuffy officers' wives to snub her. But it's on her return to London that she finally overreaches herself, signing a deal with the devil himself (that'll be Gabriel Byrne, then, as the creepily cool Marquess of Steyne): £1,000 and a VIP pass to high society, in return for her soul. and her body. Will her story end in tragedy and degradation, or will an unlikely but somehow still satisfying happy ending be tacked unexpectedly on the end? Hmmm, I'll leave it to you to find out.

Admittedly it's been a good long while since I read the book, but what I remember of it doesn't bear much resemblance to this film. Where the book is seedy, satirical and cruel, the film is sexy, witty and fun. Whilst Thackeray's Becky is a wicked, cold-hearted little minx, Reese Witherspoon's is charmingly self-centred and always sympathetic, loyal (in her own way) to her good-hearted but weak-willed, impractical husband, even if her determination to drag him to the top of the social ladder with her will eventually result in his destruction.

Jonathan Rhys Meyers is a louche, curly-lipped lag in Vanity Fair

And just as the film takes gleeful liberties with the book, so do the costumes play merry hell with the period. but who cares when the results are so utterly gorgeous? Drawing inspiration from the rich hues of India, a constant symbol for mysterious exoticism in the film, and sticking to a glorious palette of rich peacock blues and infernal reds, Vanity Fair is a glamorous fashion feast for the eyes from start to finish. The military officers simply drip gold braid and buckles, with thigh high patent leather boots and swords swinging at their sides, whilst the women in general and Becky in particular are a modern vision of old fashioned beauty in sexy silks and satins, feathers, jewels and furs. (All except for Becky's insipid pal Amelia, that is, who alone is stuck in yer traditional Jane Austen white empire line frocks.)

Bob 'Oskins as Sir Pitt Crawley with Reese Witherspoon as Becky Sharp in Vanity Fair

But if frocks fail to move you, you can always play 'spot the famous British actor' game, as Sunday evening telly's finest line up to entertain you with amusing cameos. Bob 'Oskins, Jim Broadbent, and oh, isn't that Miss Marple...? Jonathan Rhys Meyers is his usual louche, curly-lipped, rent-a-lag on screen self as the dissolute Captain George Osborne, and James Purefoy (he was the Black Prince in A Knight's Tale - that's where you've seen him before) is equally convincing as the love struck Rawdon Crawley. It's great to see Notting Hill/51st State comic hero Rhys Ifans in a serious role, as Amelia's devoted suitor Captain Dobbin - if anyone deserves a happy ending it's him.

Like the Gwyneth Paltrow version of Emma, Vanity Fair is made very much with an eye towards a modern audience and modern sensibilities, and pant-stitching period detail be damned. But whilst the modernity of Emma's screenplay sat uncomfortably with the shrewd social commentary of Jane Austen's novel, resulting in a film that was at best uneven and at worst bizarre, Thackeray's more cynical novel can take the slick and witty 21st century dialogue that's imposed upon it and make it work. And anyway, there isn't really a great deal of difference between the vacuous bitchiness of early 19th century high society and the vacuous bitchiness of today's shallow celebrity culture. With her shameless self-promotion and voracious limelight hogging, Becky Sharp comes across rather like a Georgian Geri Halliwell, desperately clinging to the coattails of the rich and famous in the hope she can hitch a lift to the top.

Sumptuous, sexy and wildly entertaining, Vanity Fair is as sly, sprightly and sassy as its celebrated heroine. Like Reese Witherspoon's Becky, it's perhaps a little sweeter than it should be, but is none the less enthralling for it.

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