William Makepeace Thackeray’s seminal 1848 novel, “Vanity Fair,” was filmed in the silent era, in 1932 with Myrna Loy, and in 1935 with Miriam Hopkins. It has also been adapted three times as a television miniseries, most recently in 1998. Most of these have faded, though the 1935 movie, called “Becky Sharp,” has some archival value as the first feature-length movie to be shot in three-strip Technicolor.
Mira Nair’s equally colorful new version of “Vanity Fair,” starring Reese Witherspoon as Thackeray’s lustily resourceful social climber, Becky Sharp, is likely to be remembered for more than its rich visuals. While this is not the definitive remake that might once and for all establish the material as the basis for a movie classic, it’s grandly entertaining and exceptionally well-cast.
James Purefoy, who played the bisexual hunk in “Bedrooms and Hallways,” captures the charm as well as the moodiness of Becky’s gambler husband Rawdon Crawley, who often suggests an early version of Rhett Butler (check out his exit line). Eileen Atkins, fresh from her flinty performance as the “goat lady” who rescues Jude Law in “Cold Mountain,” enthusiastically tackles the role of the gossipy spinster aunt, Matilda, who instantly recognizes a soulmate in Becky.
Gabriel Byrne brings a sinister edge to the Marquesse of Steyne, who discovers Becky as a penniless orphan, forced to sell a portrait of her mother. Also just right are Romola Garai as Becky’s deluded best friend, Amelia; Jonathan Rhys-Meyers as Amelia’s reckless husband, George; Bob Hoskins as the uncouth Pitt, who hires Becky as a governess and picks the wrong moment to propose to her; and Rhys Ifans, effectively cast against type as Dobbin, Amelia’s frustrated longtime admirer.
Witherspoon may seem jarringly contemporary at times, but so does some of the slangier dialogue (the term “suck up” was apparently used in the 19th Century, but it still sounds unreal in this context). More troubling is the fact that Nair and Witherspoon have softened Becky, who has been described by literary critics as “a naughty witch” and “entirely amoral.” Here she’s just a gold-digger, perhaps more impish and less ruthless than most.
Nair, who was born in India and is best-known for “Monsoon Wedding” and the Oscar-nominated “Salaam Bombay!,” set out to make an adaptation of a literary classic that would not be tame and stuffy, and she’s certainly succeeded on that level. She also emphasizes the east’s influence on the west, and on Becky in particular.
The girl delights in eating spicy curries and performing an Oriental “slave dance” straight out of a Bollywood musical. Thackeray was born in Calcutta, he set the book mostly in England but partly in India, and the script by Julian Fellowes (who won an Oscar for “Gosford Park”) deftly expands on that mixture.
Despite the emphasis on Witherspoon’s Becky, the storyline stubbornly resists making her the focus. It’s an ensemble piece, just as its original author intended, and there are moments when Atkins and Ifans threaten to dominate. No wonder Thackeray gave “Vanity Fair” the subtitle, “A Novel Without a Hero.”