Surprisingly, "Legally Blonde's" very modern Reese Witherspoon seems quite at home in the 19th Century world of London society as sprung from the pages of William Makepeace Thackeray's "Vanity Fair." Unfortunately she fails to inspire much sympathy for the novel's cunning, charmingly conniving, social-climbing heroine.
An orphan raised at a snooty girl's school, where she was indentured as a maid to pay for her edification, upon graduation the brilliant Becky Sharp rises quickly from nanny for the children of an eccentric country nobleman (Bob Hoskins), to sharp-tongued companion for his gossipy, aged society dame sister (Eileen Atkins), to wife-by-elopement of the nobleman's nephew -- much to the shock and chagrin of her former employers.
On the arm of her dashing army officer husband (James Purefoy) -- who used to "break hearts for a hobby" before falling under her spell -- Becky elbows her way into the disapproving circles of the Georgian-era upper crust, her beauty and biting wit making her irresistible to pliant men and a formidable rival to condescending women.
But as the story progresses through her good and bad fortunes -- stemming from, among other things, the Napoleonic Wars and her hard-gambling husband's fluctuating finances -- there is no point at which Witherspoon arouses one's hope for Becky's future. It's refreshing to see a genuine anti-heroine emerge from this kind of epic chamber drama, but the actress lacks the charm and heart that let the audience revel in her backhanded success and pity her periodic misfortunes.
Infused with the spicy sensibilities of Indian director Mira Nair ("Mississippi Masala," "Monsoon Wedding," "Kama Sutra" and "Salaam Bombay!"), the gray formality of early-1800s England is sublimated in favor of a lush and devious, almost Bollywood sense of color and pizzazz that serves well this story of bold, unapologetic feminine wiles. The photography (by Declan Quinn) is gorgeous and the dialogue is crisp and wry, yet the manners and societal pecking orders are pointedly defined. So is a cavalcade of secondary characters played by the likes of Jim Broadbent and Gabriel Byrne, who has a pivotal role as an unscrupulously motivated benefactor who helps Becky through hard times, only to bring even worse upon her.
Screenwriters Julian Fellowes ("Gosford Park"), Matthew Faulk and Mark Skeet boil down the book's 900 pages without the film feeling entirely expurgated, although some subplots are overly simplistic and a few personalities get short shrift. Such is the case with Becky's dearest friend Amelia (Romola Garai), whose blind adoration of a vicious cad (JONATHAN RHYS-MEYERS) and complete romantic ignorance toward a perfectly nice admirer (Rhys Ifans channeling Alan Rickman from "Sense and Sensibility") make a watered-down cliché of a major character in the book.
Also lost in the translation is Becky's sense of family. Over the course of 30 years (in which no one seems to age except children) she has all of two or three brief scenes with her son, in which one gets the passing impression of complete disinterest. This particular shortcoming in character definition cannot be laid at Witherspoon's feet, but it certainly makes her even less appealing.
Yet through Witherspoon's understanding of Becky's self-serving psyche and catty charisma -- if not her humanity (something her unsympathetic characters in darker films like "Election" and "Freeway" always had) -- and through Nair's exquisite command of the picture's tenor and atmosphere, "Vanity Fair" retains much of its allure until the simplistic and unsatisfying finale, in which all tribulations are resolved all at once and in a matter of five very convenient minutes.
Intriguing as a movie that almost fulfills its promise but falls short in an elegant, highly crafted fashion, "Vanity Fair" may still be worth seeing for those drawn to costume drama. But more pleasure may come from the act of picking it apart afterward than from actually watching the film unfold.
Run time: 141 mins
In Theaters: Wednesday 1st September 2004
Box Office USA: $16.1M
Box Office Worldwide: $16.1M
Distributed by: Focus Features
Production compaines: Alliance Films
Contactmusic.com: 2.5 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 51%
Fresh: 83 Rotten: 81
IMDB: 6.2 / 10
Director: Mira Nair
Starring: Reese Witherspoon as Becky Sharp, James Purefoy as Rawdon Crawley, Jonathan Rhys Meyers as George Osborne, Romola Garai as Amelia Sedley, Gabriel Byrne as The Marquess of Steyne, Rhys Ifans as William Dobbin, Jim Broadbent as Mr. Osborne, Bob Hoskins as Sir Pitt Crawley, Eileen Atkins as Miss Matilda Crawley, Tony Maudsley as Joseph Sedley, Douglas Hodge as Pitt Crawley, Tom Sturridge as Older Georgy Osborne
Also starring: Natasha Little