Mira Nair constructs an intensive, intoxicating version of Thackeray's dark masterpiece
If you had read William Makepeace Thackeray's Vanity Fair when it was published in monthly installments from 1847 to 1848, its characters would have lived with you, like raucous boarders, for more than a year. The book has been adapted into TV miniseries three times (most recently in 1998), and the experience of returning to Becky Sharp and Amelia Sedley week after week approximates the way Victorians encountered their great and voluminous novels.
Squeezing the tale into a theatrical movie of 137 minutes demands omissions, but director Mira Nair finds strength in constriction. From its opening scene in the swarming, muddy, squalid streets of 1802 London, her film is as intensive as Thackeray's book is extensive. Set in England, Belgium, Germany, and India, with lavish attention to the textures and tones of time and place, this Vanity Fair is a seductive spectacle: A worldly carnival, Beelzebub might have used it to lure sinners in the scene in Pilgrim's Progress from which Thackeray borrowed his book's title.
Another novel-istic feature impossible to imitate on screen is Thackeray's intrusive, playful narrator, who calls himself "Manager of the Performance" and likens his characters to puppets. The film avoids voiceovers, and its characters are creatures of nothing but their own inane social ambitions. In her first scene, Becky Sharp is a little girl manipulating marionettes, but the only Manager of the Performance in her passage from bullied ward at Miss Pinkerton's Academy to governess to lady of the house to casino hostess in Baden Baden, is the dextrous Reese Witherspoon. The orphaned daughter of a French chorus girl and a starving artist, her Becky is a Napoleon of the drawing room and boudoir, out to conquer England. "I had thought her a mere social climber," says best friend Amelia's mother. "I now see she's a mountaineer." The mountains in Vanity Fair are treacherous. Like the upstart emperor Bonaparte, whose misfortune forms a backdrop to her own machinations, Becky proves puppet more than puppeteer. "We have all been fools," she ultimately realizes.
Nair, an Indian who directed Salaam Bombay! and Monsoon Wedding, might seem an odd choice for this quintessentially British comedy of class, except that Thackeray himself was born in Calcutta, and Britain's new dominion over India sends characters scuttling between England and Asia. The film (whose credits salute Edward Said, the late scourge of Orientalism) offers vivid images of exotic India and graphic evidence of Indian influence on Albion. Set during the Napoleonic Wars, when military opportunists rush into battle with Becky's confidence that, as Osborne tells his doomed son, "There's nothing you can't have if you reach for it," Vanity Fair is a zestful satire about the hazards of reaching. •