8 out of 10
Spiced Up Classic
Mira Nair, known for her challenging and thought-provoking works, such as "Saalam Bombay," "Mississippi Masala" and "Monsoon Wedding," has reached a new level of grandeur with her current release "Vanity Fair." Bringing the famous novel by William Makepeace Thackery's to life in glorious fashion, she adds an Eastern flair and captures perfectly the bleak, satirical quality and the atmosphere of the times, including as always a wonderful attention to detail - particularly in costume, make-up and set design.
The focus of the story is the rise and fall of aspiring painter's daughter, governess Becky Sharpe (Reece Witherspoon). Sharpe climbs from a life of povery to a position of wealth and power, only to have her greed get the best of her, but in Nair's version, she is shown to be more three dimensional than in many of the previous adaptations. Leaving Miss Pinkerton's Academy for Young Ladies, where she has befriended the wealthy Amelia Sedley (Romola Garai), Becky is sent to become a French tutor to the young daughters of eccentric baronet Sir Pitt Crawley (Bob Hoskins). While there she falls in love with and elopes with the handsome Rawdon Crawley (James Purefoy). Losing the support of his father and wealthy aunt Lady Southdown, he joins the army to fight in the Napoleonic Wars to support his family, leaving Becky to fend for herself and her unborn son. Taken under the wing of the sinister Marquess of Stayne, an admirer of her father, however nearly spells Becky's undoing, but she shows her courage and happily comes to find that her aspirations are rewarded, if possibly not how she expects.
A surprising choice for a very British drama, but an excellent choice, American actress Reece Witherspoon ("Pleasantville") plays the witty and troublesome Sharpe with perfection. Similar to Kira Knightley's Lizzie of "Pride & Prejudice," Witherspoon appears as a headstrong woman caught in the social mores of the times, attempting to fight her way free. Nair, conscious of this dynamic in the tale, takes advantage and gives the story a unique twist, creating a strong and positive character, rather than painting Sharpe as a greedy opportunist who gets her come-uppence. Joined by some of England's most famous actors and up-and-coming talent, Witherspoon appears alongside Natasha Little (who portrayed Becky Sharpe in the recent BBC production), Meg Wynn Own ("Upstairs Downstairs") as Lady Crawley, Jim Broadbent as Mr. Osbourne, Amelia's father-in-law, and Bollywood great Lillete Dubey as Mrs. Green. Also backed by strong performances by Welsh actor Rhys Ifans as the honourable William Dobbin, Jonathan Rhys Meyers as the cruel and vain George Osborne and Gabriel Byrne as the wicked Marquess of Stayne - with it's moving score composed by Canadian Mychael Danna, enchanting costumes by Beatrix Pasztor and haunting cinematography by "28 Days Later"'s Declan Quinn - it is a feast for the eyes and a spellbinding watch.
Created with the portrayal of the history British and Indian relations in mind, Nair's references to India add depth and dimension, unfortunately not well-incorporated or developed as they could have been they seem out of place instead of expanding on the story and make the film seem to wander at times, with too little resolution. The dialogue, however is always witty and most impressively for a period piece, the characters are not portrayed as infalliable, with each learning a powerful lesson - something commonly seen in many of Nair's previous works. Scriptwriters Julian Fellowes (Killwillie from "Monarch of the Glen" and cowriter of Gosford Park), Matthew Faulk and Mark Skeet, with Nair's assistance, have quite aptly translated a long, complex story in a unique an powerful way. By emphasizing the strong interelationships of the characters and their struggle to survive, the spirited performances of the cast create a fascinating portrait of the lives and politics of England during the turn of the century, and together have made a film which is brave, poetic, memorable and delightful.
Keen Focus On Human Spirit
Film Critic: Jennifer M Lillies