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Published: Wednesday, 9/1/2004

Movie review: Vanity Fair ***

BY CHRISTOPHER BORRELLI
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Welcome to September.

Back to the books.

Back to movies-of-books.

This semester, we have Vanity Fair, which opens today. It's based on a 900-page melodrama jostling with life: duchesses and generals and servants, military campaigns and social seasons, the Battle of Waterloo and back-alley London. The book is so immense in scope, adapting it for the screen is a thankless task.

All of which boils down to:

You go, girlfriend.

Pardon. (Many pardons.)

That should be:

Make haste, mademoiselle.

Becky Sharp, of William Makepeace Thackeray's landmark 19th-century soap opera, is one of literature's enduring suck-ups. That is one reading of her. On the page, she takes advantage of her ties and schemes to live above her means, until the sky crashes down. Another, more empathetic version of Becky, the can-do feminist one, might say she was merely determined. The poor orphan daughter of a remarkable painter little appreciated until after his untimely death, Becky is the spiritual kin of the self-invented woman. Society is stacked against her, and her reaction is not to wither on the vine, but transform the rules of engagement - quite literally.

Before quietly tangling herself among the moneyed world of the musty Crawley clan, for whose children she acts as governess, Becky makes a beeline for the chubby brother of her best friend, Amelia (Romola Garai). At the urging of the snide George Osborne (who has his eye on Amelia), she is rebuffed. She regroups. She makes a second run at a potential husband, this time at the Crawleys' heir-apparent, their loose, gambling scoundrel son named Rawdon. She marries above her station and ruins his.

Her actions have their distasteful purposes, of course. Thackeray cast a shrewd eye on the social sprawl of Georgian England and its self-serving aristocrats. He saw Becky quite clearly: She was not a suck-up or a go-getter but a heartless opportunist who simulated love and abandoned her firstborn (with Rawdon) and ruthlessly used people.

She climbed through families and good friends, even as the results shrank steadily against her. Reading Thackeray, you sense a merciless hand (and the hint of a world-class gossip) rendering this 19th-century milieu. And more than a century later, through six movie adaptations and three miniseries, Becky has remained this way: a social shark forever moving forward, with something resembling humanity to warm the chill in her veins.

It's not for nothing the subtitle of Vanity Fair is pretty cynical: "A Novel Without Heroes."

Director Mira Nair hasn't the heart for that sort of thing. Or rather, she has too much heart. She understands swirling, traffic-jam narratives. Her best-known movies, Salaam Bombay! and Monsoon Wedding, bristle with generations and oppression, and Thackeray himself might have approved: Nair was born in India while Thackeray lived the first five years of his life there, leaving in 1816.

Vanity Fair, the novel, touches on the British colonies of India and slips in small references to its influence back in Europe; Vanity Fair, the movie, gives us an England full of plundered Indian goods and food, and at one point, entertainment. Becky, to win the favor of the Marquess of Steyne (Gabriel Byrne), is the lead dancer in a Bollywood-esque dance number that seems part Busby Berkeley and a little Showgirls.

Thackeray purists may roll their eyes, but it doesn't come off far-fetched: This was a country curious about the exotic. Nair's relatively faithful condensation of the relationships and romances of the book is witty and lively with pageant and splendor; it has nice touches and is never Masterpiece Theater drab. What it doesn't do is cut deeply. The best line in the film (scripted by Gosford Park's Julian Fellowes) is telling. As Becky flutters and charms, it's observed: "She is no mere social climber. She's a mountaineer."

That line is not in the book, and though it's true, it's also an example of how Becky's flaws have been sanded down to make her easier to sympathize with. You can hardly blame Nair for wanting this. When Becky says, "I'm going to deal myself a better hand," our democratic instincts kick in and we recognize that here is a girl with no chance of breaking out of her low station in life without taking what she wants.

Becky sings like a bird. She is beautiful and well-schooled and speaks at least two languages. Her sense of humor could slash your tires. She carries herself with confidence and to her men, she's a turn-on. What she lacks is money. But it's all that matters in this world.

The early scenes, where we watch the manners of this society play out, work best. The Crawley household is made over by Becky's energetic hand: Sir Pitt (Bob Hoskins), the head of the family, has been living among a dusty, chaotic jumble of heirlooms until she arrives.

His sister, Matilda, played by a scene-stealing Eileen Atkins, appreciates the ruthless honesty of Becky's observations and helps entrench the girl deeper into their family. But even when Becky drops a rung or two in their graces, Nair is protective of her, rarely critical.

Pulling back where Thackeray would have let the peacock feathers fly, Nair declaws Thackeray to the point where Becky's actions at times seem (at best) justified and (at worst) opaque; her marriage, for one, goes on far longer than makes sense for someone devoted to moving ever upstream.

Nair may have been seeking a more complicated middle ground for Becky, but the problem with snipping the edges off Thackeray is that without the nasty fun, you're left with a drawing-room drama that seems more complicated than necessary.

Thackeray loved the salacious. He was a newspaperman, and if you've only heard of Vanity Fair the magazine, that's oddly fitting: Its parade of the shallow and rich, of the newly wealthy and wannabe famous, might have been inspiration for Vanity Fair if he were alive now.

I have not mentioned Reese Witherspoon. This is because it's the most painful failing of Nair's Vanity Fair. I don't mean her being cast. She's more suited to the role than any other contemporary actress. Her jutted jaw alone, leading her forward like a magnet, is reason enough to cast her as Becky.

What Nair doesn't draw out is the vinegar that made Witherspoon's manipulative high-school candidate in Election so frighteningly funny and recognizable. Even Elle Woods, the character Witherspoon embodies in the two Legally Blonde comedies, is allowed her steamrolling blonde ambition to come packaged with a real gaudiness.

She hijacks every scene and takes control. But if Thackeray was forever showing us how poorly society looked upon Becky, Witherspoon doesn't know how she views Becky. Byrne's Marquess points her to a door and tells her if she passes through it, she will enter high society. And yet if she enters, she'll be disappointed. Society isn't worth it - that's the look on his face.

Becky opens that door anyway, and her fate is sealed. But there's no thrill of crashing the party and never turning back. And there should be.

Contact Christopher Borrelli at: cborrelli@theblade.com

or 419-724-6117.



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