Monday, September 13, 2004

The problem with "Vanity Fair" is....

By Linda

The 2004 version of William Makepeace Thackeray's "Vanity Fair" pulls you into its world immediately, a richly embroidered world of early 19th century lords and ladies, as well as the unwitting (and often poor) souls upon whose backs they stepped on to get there. When you walk into the drawing room, the detailed set has layer upon layer to it, an actual home where that entire English family would live for generations. Pity those who lost their fortunes, however, and were sent to debtors' prison or, worse in some respects, out to their gardens to toil for their supper in front of the neighbors.

But don't pity Becky Sharp. Becky was born poor, her father a gifted painter but not money-wise, and her mother, never seen, an opera singer. Upon her father's death, she was destined for the orphanage and eventually to work for the rich. Becky learned early that her beauty, her talent with song, and her wit raised her above her humble beginnings. She wanted to be one of those on the high rung of the social ladder. She didn't care whom she used as a rung on that ladder. Her mistake was thinking that she could truly become one of the high-born, accepted in that world. Our mistake, however, is sitting through this dreadful version one hour too many.

After the first hour of introductions regarding Becky's life and her first and best opportunities to make her move, we expect more to happen in terms of drama and character development. However, the truth is that Witherspoon is not the Becky Sharp we have come to expect from Thackeray. She is not, well, sharp: not sharp-tongued enough, nor sharp-witted. She has a sparkle here and there, and the dialogue, when taken directly from the book, crackles with humor and intensity. The actress, director and playwright all want us to like Becky. We should never like Becky. We should be intrigued by her always, watching her as the calculating, scheming woman she is, willing to do anything to get what she wants. If you want nice, read "Jane Eyre."

Apart from problems with the script, Witherspoon never captures the real Becky in this version. Her Becky never changes. Witherspoon plays her the same way in the first minute as in the last.

The problem with this movie is that it's too long; the problem with this movie is that it's too short. It should really be six hours, and not a minute sooner. And this movie should have ended sooner if it could not accomplish this. It could not. The movie employs several trite devices to speed up time. For instance, Becky's husband Rawdon Crawley (actor James Purefoy) takes to drink when he's frustrated with the current situation, over and over. That sort of device gets irksome.

The best actors in the film are the women in the background. Rawdon's aunt is wonderful as the matriarch who is terribly "democratic," but jealous enough to fly into a lifelong rage when Becky marries Lady Crawley's favorite nephew. And the various mothers, aunts and nieces are very watchable, as, indeed, in this world their station is a reflection of the men in their lives. The best dialogue blurts out of the mouths of these women. They are terribly funny in their wry postulations, synopses of their stodgy lives.

There are other problems with the screenplay, again mainly with the pacing. Several times we find we're in India, although we're not sure why. There is one scene where we see Rawdon in a tropical setting, but he's only there for a few seconds and we never see him again.

Due to the problems with pacing in the movie, the moments that should matter land flat. The only golden moment in Becky Sharp's life when she tells the truth to her best friend -- revealing that Amelia's husband was not worthy of her sacrifice -- is gone in a moment. The following moment where Amelia throws herself upon the long-suffering Dobbin does not resonate accordingly.

The real problem with Vanity Fair is that there's no vanity, and it's certainly not fair to us who paid our money and our time to see this version of the movie. If you want to see a truly memorable version of Thackeray's book, take a look at the 1967 mini-series starring Susan Hampshire. Hampshire chews up the scenery in this film, as well as the men in it, but it's a film which takes the time to get the characters and the pacing right.


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