Fri, Jan 14, 2005 - Page 17 News List

`Vanity Fair' filled with cinematic sins

By Stephen Holden  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE

Reese Witherspoon is too dull to play Becky Sharp.


Her eyes snapping like tiny firecrackers and jutting her chin, Reese Witherspoon makes an appealingly crafty Becky Sharp in Mira Nair's bland but color-drenched adaptation of William Makepeace Thackeray's 1848 novel, Vanity Fair. Witherspoon, as usual, conveys a bristly, determined spunk.

But if her performance emits enough sparks to hold the screen, it never ignites a dramatic brush fire. Despite her make-do British accent, she is quintessentially American in attitude and body language, even more a fish out of water in Vanity Fair than she seemed in The Importance of Being Earnest.

Witherspoon's upbeat approach in the film, which opens today, makes her Becky more likable than other portrayals (and there have been many, most famously by Miriam Hopkins in the 1935 movie Becky Sharp, the first Hollywood feature in Technicolor).

But with its diminished gravitas, this Becky comes across as a lightweight schemer about as formidable as an aspiring trophy wife on a daytime soap. When the movie is over, you half expect Witherspoon to turn to the camera and plead, "You still like me, don't you?"

The ascent of Becky, the orphaned daughter of an impoverished artist and a French opera dancer, to the treacherous peaks of 19th-century London society and her subsequent fall from grace, plays more like the story of a cheerfully reckless flirt than of the swath cut by an unscrupulous social climber.

Becky has been cited as the literary role model for Scarlett O'Hara (a claim Margaret Mitchell denied). And as you watch Witherspoon's Becky spin her webs, you long for a lot more Scarlett O'Hara and a lot less Elle Woods.

In studiously compressing a novel that spans three decades of early 19th-century British social history into 138 minutes, the movie becomes increasingly hurried as it struggles to compress so many subplots. Eventually it loses track of time, and its refusal to show the characters aging over 30 years adds to the confusion.

Film Notes

Directed by: Mira Nair

Starring: Reese Witherspoon (Becky Sharp), Eileen Atkins (Miss Matilda Crawley), Jim Broadbent (Mr Osborne), Gabriel Byrne (The Marquess of Steyne), Romola Garai (Amelia Sedley), Bob Hoskins (Sir Pitt Crawley), Rhys Ifans (William Dobbin), Geraldine McEwan (Lady Southdown), James Purefoy (Rawdon Crawley) and Jonathan Rhys-Meyers (George Osborne)

Running time: 141 minutes

Taiwan Release: today

The screenplay, by Matthew Faulk, Mark Skeet and Julian Fellowes, applies the same mosaic technique to Vanity Fair that Fellowes brought to Gosford Park, but the novel's daunting size prevents its being pieced into a similarly tidy jigsaw puzzle.

But Vanity Fair has a deeper conceptual confusion. In mixing satire and romance, the movie proves once again that the two are about as compatible as lemon juice and heavy cream.

The Thaceray novel is a sweeping satire of the rampant drive for upward mobility in a Britain newly flush with the wealth flowing from its colonies. Thackeray grounded the novel in an omniscient, often caustic voice looking down (and askance) at his characters and their foibles.

The movie flashes to comic life in those scenes that convey Thackeray's disdain for the preening foolishness and snobbery of early 19th-century British society and the crass symbiotic relationship between money and aristocracy.

The movie's brightest moments belong to Eileen Atkins, as Matilda Crawley, the wealthy, tart-tongued spinster who takes an instant liking to Becky for her cleverness and candid wit and adopts her as a social pet. Once Atkins fades from the movie, it never fully recovers.

At the same time, Vanity Fair toys half-heartedly with billowy romantic drama, and its token gestures emulating Gone With the Wind are too clear and clumsy to ignore.

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