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Fair to middling
Mira Nair’s Vanity is no bonfire
Vanity fare

Thackeray might have been more of an expert on vanity, but Mira Nair sure knows how to throw a fair. She’s no sourpuss, prude, or cynic when it comes to staging a good time. In one extravagant sequence in her adaptation of Vanity Fair, Becky Sharp, played by Reese Witherspoon, and a bevy of more respectable dames swap their lace and gowns for skimpy silks in a Slave Dance performed for King George IV.

"It’s in the book," insists Nair. "Firstly, this is pre-Victorian, pre-straitjacketed and -Puritanical — the Regency era. The aristocracy, would have these spectacular extravagances especially for royalty visiting. In the book it’s slave charades — they do dumb charades of the theme of slavery in a kind of Middle Eastern sense, and she’s dressed in next to nothing like a slave girl, and all the English Roses are acting out words, you know, dumb charades. I just took the same context. Would you pay 10 dollars to see somebody acting out words in the center of a room? I would give you your money’s worth! I asked a wonderful choreographer from Bombay to choreograph it, and discovered that Reese can really shake that booty."

Becky Sharp as a 19th-century Britney Spears? Nair wanted a bit more substance than that, hence her casting of Witherspoon. "I did not know of any actress I could think of who could play from 17 to 35 and hold the presence — hold the screen so enigmatically and minx-like. The surprise or the challenge or aspiration for me was to show Reese for the first time as a full-blown woman. Also, having Reese would give me the scale of the film, which I always said would be Gone with the Wind, you know, I always wanted that, not to make a cheap period drama, but to make a, like — a circus of life, really."

Thackeray’s Becky Sharp was not so much interested in shaking her booty as shaking down others for theirs. Nair, however, admits to a less rapacious take on the book’s heroine, and on its other characters, than that of the sardonic author.

"I have loved this book since I was 16, no exaggeration," she says. "I loved that sort of completely outside/insider take he had on his own society. I loved the time that he wrote about. I remember the whole intersection between colony and empire was a very interesting milieu. And I feel like I like these people — I like their weaknesses and their foibles, but I have to enjoy them. I suppose Bob Hoskins’s character [the aptly named Pitt Crawley] could have been played as an absolute lech, but I wanted to play him with a twinkle in his eye so it makes it less threatening in a way, but more fun. But exposing the hypocrisies and the sham of that society that Thackeray did, I loved doing."

Nair makes her social points with ironic visual contrasts, rather than through satirical prose.

"I took great pains to actually move a lot of scenes from interiors into the exteriors," she explains, "to show in the exteriors a very vibrant life of the London of the streets, and how much the working class had to labor to fuel the upper class’s ability to live the way they did. I was trying to show that if Becky made a move in the wrong way, she would slip right down there. Becky Sharp’s character takes a pretty universal, timeless journey that young women were not supposed to make then, but now make all the time."

So Becky strives for upward mobility, showing few scruples, and in the end Thackeray ponders whether she or anyone is happier having fulfilled her desires or having failed and fallen by the wayside.

"Thackeray asks the ultimate yogic question: which of us, having met a desire, is satisfied? Which of us is happy in this world? What are we aspiring for, and once we get there, is that it? The question is a timeless one, and is very relevant today, in any day."

Is the question rhetorical, or does Nair have an answer?

"The way I see it, if you are aware of your desires then you probably end up happier than if you are not aware of what you are desiring. Myself, I’m happy, which is a huge thing, I mean, I don’t take the vicious attitude of the book too seriously. I am a very avid gardener, so it keeps me very close to the earth, and I’m a mother and have a family that protects me, so in that sense I do feel quite content."

— PK

Many hated Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of William Makepeace Thackeray’s Barry Lyndon, denouncing it as cold and misanthropic. Sorry, folks, but that’s the way Kubrick saw things, and so did Thackeray. Had Kubrick lived, he might have made an equally unpopular masterpiece of Thackeray’s magnum opus, Vanity Fair. Instead, Mira Nair has translated this dyspeptic and delightful epic of manners good and bad into a zesty, Bollywood-ized and bowdlerized costume comedy that ultimately affirms (and I can hear rolling from two graves) true love and family values.

No doubt it will find a broader audience than did Kubrick’s film, or Nair’s last effort, for that matter — the more festive and surprisingly darker Monsoon Wedding. Some might be put off by Nair’s indulgence in Indian spectacle and spice: near the end, the redoubtable Becky Sharp (Reese Witherspoon), in lieu of the relatively staid game of charades staged in the novel, puts on a show worthy of the late ’80s Madonna. The Vauxhall of the Regency period turns out to be a three-ring circus worthy of the London of the Swinging ’60s. Nair takes poetic license with the setting and the spirit of the book, and instills more life into the film’s set design than into its soul.

She’s pretty faithful to the book’s letter, however. Credit her and her screenwriting team with paring 800 pages to a little more than two hours of screen time (though Rouben Mamoulian’s Becky Sharp, starring Miriam Hopkins, managed to get it down to 87 minutes in 1935, and a 1932 version with Myrna Loy clocked in at 78). In brisk succession, best friends Becky and Amelia Sedley (Romola Garai) graduate from Miss Pinkerton’s finishing school, the former still a little rough around the edges. An orphan from the lowest classes, Becky is bright, beautiful, ruthless, and ambitious. Amelia, on the other hand, comes from money and rank; she’s pretty, sweet, naive, and spineless. When Amelia invites Becky to stay at her family’s Russell Square household, Becky at once sets her sights on Amelia’s blubbery brother, Jos (Tony Maudsley), a would-be East India Company nabob and an easy mark for the budding adventuress. Or so she thinks.

But Becky comes on a bit too strong, scaring Jos back to Bengal and earning for herself a trip to Queen’s Crawley. Serving crapulous Sir Pitt Crawley (Bob Hoskins), Becky finds fertile soil for her wiles. With narrative efficiency and sumptuous style, Nair spins out Becky’s intrigues until she snares Sir Pitt’s dissipated eldest son, Captain Rawdon Crawley (James Purefoy). With Becky’s new status, she returns to favor with the Sedleys. Amelia, meanwhile, endures a more virtuous melodrama in her ill-starred love of the vain Captain George Osborne (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), abetted by George’s best friend, the stalwart Captain Dobbin (Rhys Ifans), and bitterly opposed by George’s tyrannical father (Jim Broadbent).

It’s a lot to keep track of, especially if you throw in the Napoleonic Wars and the Battle of Waterloo. Indeed, implicit in Thackeray’s irony is the suggestion that had Becky been born a man, she might have been a match for Bonaparte, her knavery equally worshiped. As such, Thackeray is perhaps more of feminist than Nair, at least in this movie.

The failure lies largely in the casting. Witherspoon could have injected the proper venom into Becky; her brilliant performance as Tracy Flick in 1999’s Election attests to that. Nair, though, hasn’t the baleful eye of an Alexander Payne. Witherspoon’s belly-baring oriental costume in the "charade" scene notwithstanding, she proves to be just a misunderstood softy all along. As for the film’s overt goody-goodies, Garai looks physically uncomfortable as Amelia, and Ifans’s simpering Dobbin made me long for the obnoxious ass he played in Notting Hill.

Comparing an adaptation with its source is a dicey proposal. But I suspect even those who have not read the book might feel that something is missing in Vanity Fair, stuffed though it is with color, life, mud, and mischief. Perhaps it’s a lack of social or historical context — an unusual lapse for Nair, who first made her name with Salaam Bombay! She has little to say about the British exploitation of India of the time, though she does showcase the subcontinent’s music and regalia.

Thackeray compared his novel to a puppet show, the players’ passions, dreams, and desires as ephemeral and vain. By the end of the book, that theme is confirmed, but the puppets prove human and their fates tragic. In Nair’s version, diverting as it is, the puppets remain, Thackeray’s blunt truth becomes a platitude, and the glorious vanity of it all is no more than a void.

Issue Date: September 3 - 9, 2004
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