There's something about a lavish period film, one with plenty of
gorgeous costumes and exquisitely designed sets, that seems to
suggest that it ought to be good. Unfortunately, the reality of
Vanity Fair is that it is simply a long, muddled mess, and the
only effect of the lavish visuals is to sucker the viewer into
sticking it out through far too much of the bloated 141-minute film.
Vanity Fair gets off to a rocky start, with a series of abrupt
transitions from one time and place to the next, with little
indication of a connecting thread apart from the presence of Becky
Sharp. We see her as a little girl with her father, then suddenly
she's an orphan and apparently working as a maid, and then before we
can quite figure out her situation, she's grown up into a young woman
(now played by Reese Witherspoon) at the same school... except that
she's suddenly a student apparently on equal standing with the other
girls, not a servant. There's no time to puzzle that out, though,
because Becky is swiftly swept away to yet more circumstances: first
her best friend's family, then the impoverished
gentry for whom she's a governess. And so it goes...
By the third or fourth sudden change of scene, I had come to the
conclusion that Vanity Fair was going to be more or less a
picaresque story, with Becky encountering various different people
and situations as she attempted to climb her way up the social
ladder. With that impression, I didn't even bother trying to keep
track of the maddeningly large and poorly introduced cast of
secondary characters... only to find that some of them (though
certainly not all) turned out to be recurring characters after all.
That by itself is a serious blow against Vanity Fair;
adequately presenting who's who is essential to a film that pretends
to deal with intrigue and complicated relationships, and Vanity
Fair fails miserably on that count.
If it were just the opening sequence of the film that jolted viewers
around, it might be possible to get over it, but Vanity Fair
continues to feel choppy and poorly paced throughout its running
time. We get even more jumps in time, sometimes over a number of
years (yet somehow none of the characters ages so much as day over
the course of decades), with little rhyme or reason in terms of
narrative or character development.
Vanity Fair is just as much a one-character story as something
like Moll Flanders, even if Becky Sharp doesn't get billing in
the title. Because of that, the weight of the film really falls on
the shoulders of the actress in that role. I wasn't a big fan of
Reese Witherspoon coming into this movie, but neither did I
particularly dislike her. After seeing her here, I'd say that she
really wasn't up to the task that Vanity Fair sets her. She
tries to give emotional depth to Becky, but it all feels forced; it
seems like she's most comfortable in the scenes that ask her to do
nothing more than prance around and look pretty. Her British accent,
while not the worst I've ever heard, certainly has its moments of
inauthenticity as well. Was she really the best choice for the role?
I don't think so.
The rest of the cast suffers from their characters getting lost in
the shuffle. The mis-handling of characters at the beginning of the
film is carried through the rest of the film: Vanity Fair is
crowded with characters and their sisters, brothers, aunts, cousins,
fathers, and so on, all of whom intrude upon the story enough to
muddle things up and complicate the story, and none of whom actually
seem to matter all that much in the big picture. Rhys Ifans is really
the only actor in Vanity Fair who seems to be putting
something of substance into his performance, beyond dressing up in
period costume, but his decent performance is wasted here.
What it really comes down to is that Vanity Fair has had its
fangs pulled: from William Makepeace Thackeray's original novel,
Becky Sharp is supposed to be a schemer, willing to do anything to
get what she wanted, backstabbing and going for revenge with gusto.
Here, Becky is an almost passive character, being drawn from one
circumstance to another without much energy on her part. Eventually
we get the sense that she's supposed to be a bit of a schemer, trying
to make her way into an upper class that she's excluded from by
birth, but frankly this idea comes more from comments that the other
characters make about her, than from her own actions. It's hard to
even tell the difference between what Becky does in the hope of gain,
and what she does for genuine love; it all comes across as simply
"things that happen" and nothing more. It's no surprise,
then, that the dramatic developments in the film, like the outbreak
of war, feel equally flat. Becky is too sweet, too one-dimensionally
kind and good, to be interesting as a character. If there'd been a
bit of a love/hate relationship between viewers and Becky here, it
would have given the film a bit of much-needed bite, but let's face
it: she's bland, no matter what circumstances she finds herself in.
And so too is the film as a whole.
Vanity Fair appears in an anamorphic widescreen transfer that
presents the film in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio. The image
quality is satisfactory, with colors looking consistently vibrant and
natural, and the print appearing free of noise or flaws. Edge
enhancement shows up in some scenes, and contrast is a bit on the
heavy side at times, but overall it's an attractive transfer that
does justice to the visual appeal of the film.
The Dolby 5.1 soundtrack handles the film's audio needs quite well,
with a generally clean sound and a satisfactory balance between the
musical score and the other elements of the track. Some surround
sound is used, and the overall sound is pleasing to the ear. A dubbed
French 5.1 track is also included.
The commentary track from director Mira Nair will interest any
viewers who actually liked the film; there are some silent moments
but she offers a reasonably interesting perspective on her choices in
making the film. The other main special feature is a 14-minute set of
deleted scenes. The two featurettes, "Welcome to Vanity Fair"
(11 minutes) and "The Women Behind Vanity Fair" (9
minutes) are complete promotional fluff and not worth wasting your
Fair is a film that only die-hard fans of Reese Witherspoon are
going to like. Poorly structured, badly paced, with bland, one-note
characters and a complete lack of an engaging narrative, Vanity
Fair really only has its lavish costumes and sets to fall back on
for viewer appeal, and that's just not enough. Skip it.