Vanity Fair (7/10)

Copyright © 2004 by Tony Medley

Although long and disjointed, with characters that seem stolen from Gone With the Wind (1939), and burdened by the worst audio I’ve heard since The Jazz Singer (1927), Vanity Fair is an entertaining film that held my interest. The producers didn’t waste any money on the cast, choosing to pay all the money for talent to Reese Witherspoon. That’s not to deprecate the talent of the rest of the cast, because they all do good jobs. It’s just that people like Gabriel Byrne, Douglas Hodge, Bob Hoskins, and Romola Garai don’t exactly cause people to flock to the theaters.Becky Sharp (Witherspoon) is a lowborn social climber and this is the story of her clawing her way up the ladder despite the constant rejections she receives. Witherspoon is very good, as are Jonathan Rhy-Myers, who plays the cad George Osborne, and Rhys Ifans, who plays the long-suffering William Dobbin.

Even though this is a long movie, director Mira Nair must have left a lot on the cutting room floor because there are segues that just don’t make any sense, or assume we know things that have not yet been placed in evidence. Like when Becky says she and Rawdon Crawley (James Purefoy) are married. The last we saw of them she gave him a peck on the lips after he told her he liked her. Then the very next scene she says they are married, a revelation that changes her life! I was asking myself, “When did that happen?”

At another point William denigrates Becky because “she killed her husband,” but later Becky says that he’s “an important man.” Which is correct? Is he dead or important?

Becky is nothing if not enigmatic. She is portrayed as a social climber, par excellence, yet she disdains the opportunity to wed an old Lord to become Lady of his manor to marry a penniless gambler instead. Of course, this does set the stage for the rest of the movie as she tries to climb without money or status.

There is a scene where she is the leading dancer in an entertainment for the King. At no point in the film have we learned that she’s a dancer. Nobody tells us who put this performance together or how she got the spot as lead dancer. In fact, nobody tells us she’s performing for the King until he reveals to us who he is later (by saying, “I am the King, and I can do what I want” when he invites her to sit next to him at dinner; we never learn the outcome of that honor). What this film cries out for is a good editor.

The audio was simply atrocious. Whole chunks of dialogue were missed by both my companion and me, and we saw this in a theater. In fact, it was a packed theater that included 1997 Oscar winner Cuba Gooding, Jr., who was standing just in front of us in line, and Tim Daly, one of the stars of the NBC sitcom Wings (1990-97),  who sat next to us. Gooding graciously posed for a picture when two girls approached him and asked for one. 

The music (Mychael Danna), cinematography (Declan Quinn), Production design (Maria Djurkovic), and Art Direction (Sam Stokes and Lucinda Thompson) are appropriate to create the mood of the first twenty years of the 19th Century. I didn’t read William Thackeray’s novel, but the film is little more than a soap opera trifle. Although at 137 minutes the film is far too long, it did hold my interest, and qualifies as a pretty good, albeit unchallenging, entertainment.

September 4, 2004

The End