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Vanity Fair

Directed by Mira Nair

Written by Mattthew Faulk,

Mark Skeet, Julian Fellowes

Starring Reese Witherspoon,

Eileen Atkins and Gabriel Byrne

Classification: G

Rating: **

The novel Vanity Fair, the tale of a scheming orphan, Becky Sharp, and her rise in English society following the Napoleonic wars, has everything you could want in a story. As its author William Makepeace Thackeray noted in his introduction to the book, which was serialized in 1847-1848: "There are scenes of all sorts; some dreadful combats, some grand and lofty horse-riding, some scenes of high life, and some of very middling indeed; some love-making for the sentimental, and some light comic business; the whole accompanied by appropriate scenery and brilliantly illuminated with the Author's own candles."

Best of all, above it all, Vanity Fair has the erudite, playful voice of Thackeray, who compares himself to a puppet-master. Adapting the story requires bringing a different set of candles to the job (in this case three different screenwriters burned their wicks) and cutting the characters free from Thackeray, who constantly tells us what to think of them.

The latest film version (there have been a half-dozen, as well as three miniseries) comes from Mira Nair, the American-educated Indian director responsible for the hit, Monsoon Wedding, which showed that the mores of Regency England and contemporary bourgeois India may not be so far apart. Consciously bringing a postcolonial perspective to this canonical work, Nair emphasizes the dark-skinned servants, the curried food, the cult of Orientalism in decor and fashion. Visually, she has created an unexpectedly vibrant recreation of early 19th-century England, including some pungent details -- aristocrats eating rotten mutton stew, the scurvied scalp beneath the powdered wig. She's much less adept at finding a dramatic story beneath the mountain of detail.

As capably portrayed by Reese Witherspoon (looking somewhat drawn, and wearing a pile of red curls), Becky has more humanity but less edge than Thackeray provided. She's Legally Blonde in period costume, a plucky girl getting her due (in the novel, she's a woman who preys on the sick, rejects her child and sends a couple of men to their deaths).

This makes for a more likable heroine but a less compelling one, and mutes the satiric point -- that Becky's predatory behaviour is only an extreme version of how society works. Nair's film makes a hopeful beginning, as Becky Sharp departs from the finishing school where she has been sent, insults her headmistress and tosses the graduation dictionary out the coach window. She shocks her schoolmate, the good, much-abused Amelia Sedley (Romola Garai). Becky makes an initial play for Amelia's portly older brother, the dumb and besotted Joseph (Tony Maudsley), but she is thwarted by the interference of George Osborne (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers), Amelia's snobbish fiancé.

She continues on to her assigned job, as a governess to the children of Sir Pitt Crawley (Bob Hoskins), a Hampshire aristocrat in a crumbling, filthy mansion. Here she first shows some of her entrepreneurial backbone, making the house respectable, tolerating the pious son, Pitt (Douglas Hodge), and endearing herself to the heir apparent, the dissolute Rawdon (James Purefoy). She is particularly good at winning the favour of the wealthy invalid Aunt Mathilda (Eileen Atkins), who sees enough of herself in Becky to take the girl to London, where Becky hopes to stage her triumph.

Both Becky and Amelia have their military-officer paramours, and the possibility of decent society lives, but they suffer setbacks in their romantic ambitions and are cut off financially because of their marriages. At about the film's halfway point, we learn that Napoleon is back, and the action moves to Brussels in 1815 before the Battle of Waterloo. After one fancy-dress ball, both Amelia's life and Becky's fortunes go into decline.

So, unfortunately does the movie, as it grows increasingly episodic and dramatically scattered. Years pass, yet no one appears to age: Amelia, now a mother, gets poorer and more pathetic, while ignoring the adoration of the loyal and lugubrious Major Dobbin (Rhys Ifans). Becky continues with the bland husband Rawdon, but here the blandness seems more a casting problem than a dramatic intent. At the same time, she finds a mentor for her social mountaineering in the roguish Marquess of Steyne (played by Gabriel Byrne). Steyne (pronounced Stain) is, by default, the most virile and attractive male figure in the film.

Their relationship provides Nair with her first of several heavy-handed Indian impositions, when she has Becky perform a Bollywood dance number at a high-society ball. (In the novel, she excelled at charades, playing Clytemnestra, Agamemnon's murdering wife.)

Later, when Major Dobbin goes to India, Nair shows him with his hair and mustache grown long, like a Beatle returning from a trip to see the Maharishi. She even contrives to end the story back on the subcontinent with a happy ending.

This might be tolerable if Nair hadn't missed the central point, that Becky Sharp isn't sharp like spice, she's sharp like a razor.