My purpose [in Vanity Fair] is to indicate, in cheerful terms, that we are for the most part an abominably foolish and selfish people "desperately wicked" and all eager after vanities… I want to leave everybody dissatisfied and unhappy at the end of the story — we ought all to be with our own and all other stories. Good God don’t I see (in that maybe cracked and warped looking glass in which I am always looking) my own weaknesses wickednesses lusts follies shortcomings? We must lift up our voices about these and howl to a congregation of fools: so much as least has been my endeavour. — William Makepeace Thackeray
Mira Nair’s Vanity Fair is many things, but a howl to a congregation of fools isn’t one of them.
It’s persuasively mounted, both in splendor and squalor; it’s respectfully adapted, with most of the plot points and a good bit of the witty dialogue drawn from Thackeray’s 1848 serialized satire. I’m convinced that the people behind it genuinely care about Thackeray’s characters and story, if not all of his ideas or creative intentions.
What it suffers from is a failure of nerve. Nair and a trio of credited screenwriters (including Julian Fellowes, Gosford Park) make the mistake of trying to turn Thackeray’s story into a crowd-pleaser — not a fatal mistake, perhaps, but a debilitating one.
Some directors are willing to leave audiences "dissatisfied and unhappy," but Nair may not be one of them. Her warm humanism — last seen in Monsoon Wedding, one of the best films of 2002 — is a poor match for Thackeray’s borderline misanthropic tendencies, and in her hands the "Novel Without a Hero" (Thackeray’s subtitle) becomes a film about a heroine.
That heroine is Becky Sharp (Reese Witherspoon), a young woman of ferocious ambition and intelligence but no means or status living in Napoleonic-era London. Unlike the similarly intelligent but unprivileged heroines of Jane Austen’s genteel comedies, Becky has no high-minded scruples about matters of love or principle. She regards marriage and even childbearing in purely pragmatic terms, and readily uses her feminine wiles, quick wit, nerve, and good singing voice to advance her social and financial interests.
That the complex system of class, privilege, and social alliances that Becky both uses and defies amounts to "vanity" goes in these egalitarian times without saying. (The title Vanity Fair alludes, of course, to the perpetual carnival in Bunyan’s allegory Pilgrim’s Progress where all the riches, pleasures, and glories of this world can be bought or sold. Behind the proper noun is the judgment of Ecclesiastes: "Vanity of vanities, all is vanity… a striving after the wind.")
Where the filmmakers can’t bring themselves to agree with Thackeray is in faulting Becky for her single-minded pursuit of these "vanities," as well as the means by which she pursues them. They have too much admiration for her.
Curiously, this leads them to make their Becky more conventional than that of the book. (Warning: Book and film spoilers ahead.) In Thackeray’s tale, after Becky’s gambler husband’s fortunes sour, she turns her wiles on the amoral but powerful aristocrat Lord Steyne, whose lavish gifts and social sponsorship clearly come with an implicit quid pro quo.
Thackeray doesn’t come right out and say that Becky actually is unfaithful, but he tells us that she entertains Steyne alone on countless occasions. In a key scene, when Becky’s husband Rawdon discovers them together, Becky is sitting on a couch laughing, decked out in all the jewelry Steyne has given her, with Steyn himself hanging over the couch, her hand in his, kissing it. "Was she guilty or not?" Thackeray muses. "She said not, but who could tell what was truth which came from those lips, or if that corrupt heart was in this case pure?"
This scene plays quite differently in the film, which depicts a frightened Becky clearly resisting Steyne (Gabriel Byrne) as he makes what can only be his first direct advances upon her when Rawdon (James Purefoy) bursts in on them. In this version, Becky’s protestations of innocence are unambiguously genuine, and the possible affair has become instead a case of sexual harassment and attempted rape. In keeping with this revision, the open flirting of their earlier scenes together has likewise been downplayed. The film even gives Becky a virtuous early line, not in the book, to the effect that no man but her husband and her doctor will ever enter her bedroom.
This redemptive revisionism might be easier to swallow if the film’s drama held together on its own terms, but it doesn’t really. Thackeray said he wanted the end of his novel to leave readers dissatisfied and unhappy. Nair can’t do this, but what she does do is unlikely to leave viewers happy and satisfied either.
In fact, one can’t really be very happy or unhappy with the results, although one can certainly be dissatisfied. Neither Thackeray’s cynicism nor Nair’s humanism is allowed to prevail, and the film falls between two stools.
It’s a failure, but an honorable failure, and highly watchable throughout, especially during the well-done first act. In particular, Vanity Fair is most worthy of its source material whenever Eileen Atkins is onscreen as the witheringly tart-tongued spinster Matilda Crawley, who despises her relations for toadying to her for her money and takes a seemingly egalitarian but treacherous liking to Becky for her acerbic wit.
The film loses its way in the second half, going off the rails in a gonzo Bollywood musical number and trying so hard to include as many supporting characters as possible that it never adequately develops the really important ones, such as Becky’s best friend Amelia (Romola Garai) and Amelia’s long-suffering suitor Dobbin (Rhys Ifans), who, given a more balanced adaptation, would certainly have been mentioned before now in this review.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.