Based on William Thackeray's panoramic social critique of English society, director Mira Nair's Vanity Fair (2004) is a lush, occasionally erotic and always flamboyant celebration of period costume. That the central performances sometimes become secondary to Declann Quinn's gorgeous cinematography is a misgiving I have no doubt Thackeray himself would have approved of, particularly as the story’s focus is on the absurdities of following the latest fashion to a most unhappy conclusion.
Made in 1935 as Becky Sharp starring Miriam Hopkins, this exotic remake also proved to be an expensive dud at the box office. This is a shame, because unlike the 1935 version, Nair's remake is both clever and concise, no small feat given the expansiveness of Thackeray's novel. It should be pointed out that Thackeray's central character, Becky Sharp is hardly a stock Hollywood heroine and this is perhaps the difficulty many have with her when viewing any film derived from the book; our level of expectation for a winsome gal in a bodice and corset is at odds with the scheming complexities of the character as written. For Becky Sharp is a shrewd, conniving and manipulative social climber. Her thirst for riches is unquenchable. She will cease at nothing to be satisfied.
In Nair's version, Becky is played with exceptional reverence by Reese Witherspoon, who was pregnant at the time of filming no less. In the Matthew Faulk, Julian Fellowes, Mark Skeet screenplay we are first introduced to Becky as a child inside her father's impoverished artist's studio, determined to barter with the exceptionally wealthy Marguess of Steyne (Gabriel Byrne) for a price on her father's latest portrait. The Marguess acquiesces to the child's demands out of a playful fascination for this willful urchin girl. After the death of her own father Becky is sent to Miss Pinkerton's (Ruth Sheen) Academy for Young Ladies where she is generally abused and overworked. At the end of her tenure at this finishing school Becky is shipped off to the dilapidated country estate of Sir Pitt Crawley (Bob Hoskins), entrusted as a governess with the education of his two young daughters.
Becky's one true friend, Amelia Sedley (Romala Garai) continues to write to her at Sir Pitts regularly. Amelia's rather oafish, though kindly brother, Joseph (Tony Maudsley), an officer in the army, is entranced by Becky from the start but heartily discouraged from pursuing a romance by his fellow officer George Osbourne (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers). Sir Pitt is most impressed by Becky's tutelage and the way she has whipped his unkempt house into shape for the arrival of his wealthy sister, Matilda (Eileen Atkins) whom he depends on for his own inheritance. Matilda is a shrewd woman and recognizes Becky's intensity to be of the upper classes rather than simply a slave to them.
To this end, and even moreover because it will frustrate the family whom she readily despises, Matilda brings Becky back with her to London where she eventually falls in love with Matilda's favorite nephew, Rawdon (James Purefoy); a Captain in the Royal Army. Meanwhile, Amelia fantasizes an engagement to George. Regrettably, he is a selfish prig who considers Amelia an unfit match after her father's estate is brought to financial ruin by his own father (Jim Broadbent). To defy his father's edict that he should marry a wealthy woman rather than one he truly loves, George marries Amelia and is promptly ostracized from his family and his presumed inheritance. The same fate befalls Rawdon after he sweeps Becky off her feet and is disowned by Matilda. These circumstances force Rawdon and Becky to survive on his soldier's salary, meager at best, and by her wits, amply endowed.
Amelia, George, Rawdon and Becky take their holiday in Brussels. However, after the outbreak of war with Napoleon, George and Rawdon are called into service while Becky and Amelia are driven into seclusion to wait out the duration of the Battle of Waterloo. George is killed during this skirmish, leaving Amelia with child. Mr. Osbourne refuses to acknowledge Amelia as his late son's wife, but takes a definite interest in his unborn grandson, whom he will eventually conspire to steal away from Amelia.
In the meantime, Becky enters into an arrangement with the Marguess. This 'trade' secures Becky and Rawdon the necessary monies to live off but also destroys their marriage after it is revealed that Becky is expected to return to the Marguess whenever she is called to satisfy with sexual favors. Distraught, Rawdon leaves Becky for good and is forced to abandon their son with his brother, Pitt (Douglas Hodge) before accepting a commission on Coventry Island where he succumbs to Yellow Fever and eventually dies. Revealing to Amelia that George once attempted to seduce her while still married, Becky pursues Joseph in India where he has become quite a wealthy land owner. Realizing that she has been a fool in love, Amelia surrenders her memory of George and their child to marry Major William Dobbin (Rhys Ifans), the only man who ever truly loved and cherished her from afar.
Vanity Fair is sumptuous and extraordinarily engrossing at times. The screenplay is adept at keeping all of the characters in play. Yes, the show belongs to Witherspoon’s Becky Sharp, but we are also introduced to a miraculous ensemble of witty, adroit and deceptively handsome characters, all entertaining us with their own fascinating back stories that enrich the experience as a whole. If there is a criticism to be made against the movie it is that Nair's direction at times seems to momentarily depart from the period detail, devolving into odd neo-classic realism.
As example, the sequence in which a discarded Becky performs a rather erotic India ballet could almost take its cue from a vintage MTV music video. While staged with finesse and beautifully photographed, the sequence does tend to stand apart from the scenes that bookend it and this becomes quite jarring. Nevertheless, Vanity Fair is a riveting melodrama. It is a must see/must own visual cream sundae with solid performances that will live on long after the elegant Ms. Sharp has departed for greener pastures.
Alliance Home Video's Blu-ray is quite beautiful. Mastered in full 1080p, the image exhibits some very breathtaking colors and an all-around sharpness and attention to fine detail that will surely not disappoint. Flesh tones are bang on as are contrast levels. Blacks are solid and velvety deep. Whites are crisp and clean. Film grain is represented as grain not digital grit. There are no digital anomalies to speak of. The audio is 5.1 DTS and very hearty indeed. Mychael Danna's sultry score is the real benefactor. Dialogue is natural sounding.
Extras are scant but well-placed, included three brief featurettes that cover similar ground on the making of the film, plus an audio commentary by Nair that is comprehensive to say the least. Aside: I could have done without Alliance Home Video's interminable litany of trailers that precede the feature, but overall I have to say that in this case, their handling of the Blu-ray format is most satisfying.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)