(director: Mira Nair; screenwriters: Matthew Faulk/Julian Fellowes/Mark Skeet/from the novel by William Makepeace Thackeray; cinematographer: Farah Khan; editor: Allyson C. Johnson; music: Mychael Danna; cast: Reese Witherspoon (Becky Sharp), James Purefoy (Rawdon Crawley), Romola Garai (Amelia Sedley), Jonathan Rhys-Meyers (George Osborne), Gabriel Byrne (Marquess of Steyne), Jim Broadbent (Mr. Osborne), Bob Hoskins (Sir Pitt Crawley), Rhys Ifans (William Dobbin), Eileen Atkins (Miss Matilda Crawley), Douglas Hodge (Pitt Crawley), Tony Maudsley (Joseph Sedley); Runtime: 140; MPAA Rating: PG-13; producers: Janette Day/Donna Gigliotti; Focus Features; 2004)

“It doesn’t do justice to Thackeray’s most famous novel.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Mira Nair (“Monsoon Wedding”/”Kama Sutra”) manages to downgrade William Makepeace Thackeray’s 1847 classic morality satirical novel into a dull and trivial soap opera-like tale. It suffers from a string of disjointed scenes, awkward pacing, poor characterizations, events that suddenly happen with an unreal jolt of believability, and a miscast heroine (who plays it as if she were a bitchy, smirking American can-do feminist–using the same tacky acting techniques she did as a high school student in Election). The film failed in every which way possible rendering it a bourgeois romantic melodrama fit for a middle-brow Masterpiece Theatre type of audience, who may, if tolerant enough, find something witty to admire about the grasping heroine’s vanity, ambitions, overacting and lame retorts. The heroine, Becky Sharp, exposes the hypocrisies of that day’s social order and its emptiness, and at the same time shows how far she’s willing to go to become a part of the same social order she mocks. A very confusing message that the filmmaker never cleared up and thereby it leaves the heroine to appear like a superficial and heartless person, someone not worth caring about. I doubt if that was Thackeray’s intention.

It’s set during the first quarter of the 19th century. Reese Witherspoon stars as the calculating and iron-willed social climbing Becky Sharp, who goes from rags-to-riches in a matter of a few years after going out in the world on her own. She’s the daughter of a talented but starving artist and a French chorus girl. After both parents die and the young Becky is left an orphan, she attends Miss Pinkerton’s Academy. At the age of 19 Becky leaves the academy on the promise of a governess job. She’s with her best friend Amelia Sedley (Romola Garai), a highborn daughter of a prosperous merchant, when she shows contempt for the offensive head mistress on her last school day by dissing her in French–a language the madame is too proud to admit she can’t speak. In Amelia’s welcome home house reception, Becky meets her friend’s arrogant soldier fiancĂ©, George Osborne (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), and immediately sees that he is a twit who only cares about himself. Amelia’s gregarious civil servant brother Joseph (Tony Maudsley), on leave from his post in India, takes a shine to Becky but is talked out of asking her hand in marriage by George–warning him not to marry her because she’s lowborn and will never fit in with the swells. Amelia’s catty mother chips in with her nasty take: “I had thought her only a social climber. I see now she is a mountaineer.”

Becky assumes the position as a governess in the disorganized country estate of an eccentric lord, Sir Pitt Crawley (Bob Hoskins), whose family has seen better days. From that dubious vantage point she charms both of Pitt’s sons, the moronic dullard Pitt Crawley (Douglas Hodge) and his dashing lover boy younger son, a career military man, Rawdon Crawley (James Purefoy), into accepting her. She then sets her sights on conquering English society through her sass and cleverness, and gets to climb up the ladder by befriending Pitt’s wealthy spinster sister Miss Matilda Crawley (Eileen Atkins), and moves with her to London. Matilda is charmed by Becky’s smart remarks and democratically says she admires imprudent marriages. But when Becky ropes Rawdon into marrying her, Matilda shows her snobbish side and cuts the two of them out of the family circle. It seems Matilda only likes such marriages in fiction and not in real life.

The centerpiece scene is at the Battle of Waterloo, where the corpse-strewn battlefield makes its anti-war point in an artificial way that generated no real feelings. The subplot of Amelia worshiping her cad hubby George, even after his death at Waterloo, while refusing to recognize the true love of George’s best friend, Major Dobbins (Rhys Ifans), gets played out for all its worth but never seemed affecting. Another minor character who takes up too much film time to no avail is the Marquess of Steyne (Gabriel Byrne), who is a wealthy art collector. He met Becky in her father’s studio when she was an audacious 10-year-old and reunites with her when she’s married. His kindness and material help comes into question when he tries to force himself upon her, becoming another member of upper-class society who is shown to be a hypocrite.

Witherspoon lacked the range of emotions to take her character for a ride on the dark side, as she’s too concerned with being cute and shamelessly likable to give her role much depth. It was a limited performance, in a film that never appeared to be anything but bland, uninspiring, and empty. Ironically, those were the same sentiments Becky was voicing against her social betters. This film is all costumes and pretty cinematography, but it doesn’t do justice to Thackeray’s most famous novel.

Vanity Fair