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Vanity Fair

Genre: Comedy/Drama
Rated: PG-13
Directed by: MIRA NAIR
Starring: REESE WITHERSPOON, EILEEN ATKINS, JIM BROADBENT, GABRIEL BYRNE, JAMES PUREFOY, JONATHAN RHYS-MEYERS
Released by: Focus Features

In Short: The gorgeous sets and costumes appeal to our vanity, but Thackeray’s rambling story of 19th-century social climber Becky Sharp is just too unwieldy for a two-plus hour movie.

Vanity Where?
Social Climber Becky Sharp Misses a Few Steps
By Andrew Bender

We walked into Vanity Fair expecting Masterpiece Theatre, and this was... something else. That’s not necessarily bad, but we wouldn’t call it successful either. Based on William Makepeace Thackeray’s sweeping 1848 novel, Vanity Fair was a gamble for star Reese Witherspoon and director Mira Nair. Witherspoon makes a convincing enough transformation from Legally Blonde to regally bound. Her Becky Sharp alternately climbs the social ladder and gets beaten with it. She flirts with men and with success, marries for much richer and much poorer and wears her period costumes with playful grace. She even seems to have the accent right.

Nair, meanwhile, has nailed the pomposity and grit of that time and place—and even some of its humor, although somehow it all seems a little distant. The film is most vibrant in scenes that evoke her native India (she also directed Salaam, Bombay! and Monsoon Wedding, and several of the characters are in the India trade). One set piece, the “slave dance,” made us want to ditch stodgy old London and hop on the next steamer.

Yet it’s when you look at the supporting cast of top-notch British actors that you realize how much more the film could have been. Particularly Dame Eileen Atkins, as a bitchy rich dowager, and James Purefoy, as Becky’s husband, tower over every scene they’re in.

There’s a more basic problem: Thackeray’s rambling story is just too unwieldy for a two-plus hour movie. There are so many characters, with so much going on over such long periods that we never feel emotional traction. Perhaps that’s the reason novels like Vanity Fair have so long been serialized on, oh, say, Masterpiece Theatre
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