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Vanity Fair /

Rated: PG-13

Starring: Reese Witherspoon, Jim Broadbent, Eileen Atkins, James Purefoy, Jonathan Rhys Meyers

Directed by: Mira Nair

Produced by: Lydia Dean Pilcher, Janette Day, Donna Gigliotti
Written by:
Julian Fellowes, Mark Skeet, Matthew Faulk
Distributor: Focus Features


James Purefoy and Reese Witherspoon in Focus Features' Vanity Fair
Reese Witherspoon beckons in Focus Features' Vanity Fair

     Two cups art direction, a tablespoon of flashy set design, and a pinch of ďfunnyĒ-sounding dialogue makes for the average period piece. Vanity Fair, on the other hand, isnít the average period piece.

     This is more than a special movie. Itís a beautiful movie. Why? Because there is emotion and observation in its contents, two crucial ingredients needed to make a good motion picture that directors in this genre often forget to add to their batter.

     Watching Mira Nairís Vanity Fair is a poetic, flowing experience. It puts us in a position in which weíre so enraptured in every scene that whatís coming is insignificant; the heat of the moment is more important. Thatís why, with each sketch, the audience will be subtly stunned, reliant upon each word and motion the characters choose to use or make. The nearly two-and-a-half-hour running-length feels like nothing, for the filmís sumptuousness is incredible.

     The heart of its tremendousness lies in its dialogue and performances, which find an evitable mixture of poignancy and sophistication. Here, the lines of the script are more biting than simple wordplay, written in a latching way. We anticipate the dynamics of each conversation. All of the characters, ironically, react to society in bitterly similar ways and their discussion, back-and-fourth, is clever and observant. In direct correlation with this inventiveness is strikingly alive acting. Heading the cast, Reese Witherspoon does some of her best work as Becky Sharp, a woman who moves up Englandís social ladder, throughout the course of Vanity Fair. The supporting performances are also terrific; Rhys Ifans, Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, and Geraldine McEwan rank among my favorites in the movie.

     Vanity Fair was based on a very popular novel by William Makepeace Thackeray, which I have not read, and do not have much of a desire to. While part of me would love to absorb more of the story and its apparent richness, word on the street is that Becky is a completely different person in the Thackeray version. Not to denounce the idea that the book could, very well be, a masterpiece, I donít think I wouldíve enjoyed Vanity Fair anywhere near as much if Becky wasnít this likable. The sympathy I had for her at the beginning of the film made for a great, deceptive third act. The sensuous Indian dance Witherspoon engages in, during one of the final scenes in Vanity Fair, would never have been as effective, had Becky not maintained such a level of violent compassion.

     A valid complaint against the film has been its mishmash of characters. I will admit, I didnít always know who was who, lineage-wise. Apparently several other viewers have been confused by this, too. But, I think, in a sense, this is Nairís intent. Isnít she merely toying with the concept of vanity, by not thoroughly identifying some of the characters, when weíre first introduced to them? Instead of our mindsí referring to them by their name and personality, at first, we match them with their social classification. This is not to say that, by Vanity Fairís end, we do not learn who every character specifically is. I would argue that Nairís technique works, profoundly, whether it was her intent, or not.

     As much as I enjoyed the flow of the plot, on several occasions, itís hard to deny that it is often distractingly choppy. Yes, I was caught up in the moment, but is Nairís emphasis in the right places? Whatever engagement may come out of certain scenes may be overshadowed by out-of-place indulgences, upon reflection. My attachment to them withstanding, they may be a tad unhealthy for Vanity Fairís progression. While incredibly technically respectable, my extreme enjoyment of the product is still partially guilty. 

     But, putting imperfections aside, Vanity Fair is one of the most entertaining and immersive films of the year. I will not soon forget it. When tackling monumentally respected literature, a director must be ambitious, if nothing else. Nair does this and succeeds, whatever her shortcomings may be. In the fashion of Gosford Park, which co-adaptor Julian Fellowes took the Oscar for, Vanity Fair ranks among the best period dramas of recent years.

-Danny, Bucket Reviews (9.4.2004)

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