After suffering through poverty and a stint in an orphanage in affected 1800s England, Becky Sharp (Reese Witherspoon) is determined to rise above her lowly governess class and join the rich and elite. Using potential husbands, benefactors, and her dear friend Amelia (Romola Garai, "Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights"), Becky makes her way to the peak of respectability only to find the way down is even harsher than her previous life as a pauper.
My inherent aversion to anything resembling corsets, tea, and backbiting English class warfare can be overcome when the filmmakers involved with the average costume drama figure out a way to rip passion from the chilly arms of the material. Probably the most famous story of social climbing in the genre, William Makepeace Thackeray's "Vanity Fair" (IMDb listing) is brought to the screen yet again (after countless adaptations), but this time under the promising eye of director Mira Nair, hot off her fizzy Eastern Indian matrimonial hit, "Monsoon Wedding." Yet, most criminally, passion is the least of the film's concerns.
"Vanity Fair" is the "Godfather" of costume dramas, utilizing every last detail that makes the genre such a cult favorite amongst the suburban elite and the literary minded. "Fair" is a colossal story, and is quite possibly not even meant for a film adaptation, since too much of the critical story needs to be cleaved so the audience can get home before dawn breaks. The extremely gifted Nair ("Kama Sutra," "Hysterical Blindness") falls right into the material's trap, and her "Fair" is a mess. The opening 30 minutes hint that Nair is carefully establishing the characters and the situations, but once that grace period passes, the picture starts to resemble an adaptation in which every 10th page of the book was filmed, leaving only the readers of Thackery's masterwork to truly comprehend the details and nuance of the narrative. Heaping sections of story are cut out or simply ignored in an effort to find the ending, which takes an excruciatingly long 140 minutes to get to. Nair just can't keep track of it all.
What remains of the expansive tale, which covers 40 years as well as a war, doesn't hold the promise that Nair's filmmaking suggests. With a hint of a Bollywood dance number, and supporting player Jonathan Rhys-Meyers's faux-hawk hairdo for his role as Amelia's adulterous husband, George Osborne, there is evidence that Nair was attempting to place her personal stamp on the material, which, for this stuffy film, was an appreciated touch. But soon the film just gives up and plays like any other costume drama to come along since the genre boom of the 1990s, featuring such staples as incorrigible grandmothers, gossip, loss of status and inheritances, unrequited love, mannered dinners, dirty and horny old men, and some literal bodice-ripping. Combine the cliches with the erratic storytelling, and the film is one big tea-soaked mess.
Like a sunbeam during a hurricane, Declan Quinn's cinematography is almost enough to recommend at least a peek at "Vanity Fair." Nair's collaborator for almost a decade now, Quinn can bring Nair's visual ideas to life in the most vibrant ways. In "Fair," the colors burst through the dreary story, and the landscapes scream opulence and despair when either mood is required. Less successful at hiding star Reese Witherspoon's real-life pregnancy (which Nair adores through several close-ups of the actress' heaving bosom), Quinn's skill brings an inner light out of Witherspoon when the actress has trouble with the material (which is often). Quinn's work here is among his best.
Out of all the qualified English actresses to choose from for the main role (including co-star Romola Garai), Nair went with Louisiana-born Witherspoon, who just isn't mischievous enough for Becky Sharp. The script compensates for Witherspoon by softening Becky's hard edges; almost making her a victim of her choices, and muting the backstabbing Becky commits on her way up and down the social ladder. Witherspoon has seen better days, but even more inexcusable is the rest of the supporting cast, who alternate between hamming it up (including an unforgivable performance by Geraldine McEwan), and playing a role they've been cast in way too many times before (including Jim Broadbent, Gabriel Byrne, and James Purefoy as Becky's card-shark husband). Only Rhys Ifans gets a chance to show off some diverse acting skills, and his subplot as a soldier caught in a one-sided romance with Amelia is the film's only sincerely moving storyline, due directly to the performances.
"Vanity Fair" has the design and intention to be the most vivid, dramatically reaching costume drama yet, but Nair's ambitions get the best of her, and poison the clarity of her vision.
Filmfodder Grade: D+