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Watching the wealthy at play

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Although William Makepeace Thackeray called Vanity Fair "a novel without a hero," the makers of the famous motion picture of 1935 entitled their film Becky Sharp. They named it after the book's major character, who provides a central focus, the protagonist if not the heroine of the vast, sprawling work.

In Mira Nair's new adaptation, Becky once again occupies the center of the screen and the action in a narrative that compresses much of Thackeray's masterpiece into her story, the ascent of an impoverished young woman of humble birth through English society in the early 19th century. In the process, the movie retains most of the novel's major characters and relationships while displaying some of its vision of a corrupt, materialistic ruling class, its world and values defined by the title, itself borrowed from The Pilgrim's Progress.

Intelligent, attractive, resourceful, Becky Sharp (Reese Witherspoon) is a figure traditionally more sympathetic to American than English audiences, a young person on the make, attempting to overcome obscure origins and scale the steep slopes of a rigid social system. For a young woman with her gifts and hindrances, in her time and place, the only route to success lies in a "good" marriage, i.e., a union with a man of wealth and position. Becky attracts the attentions of a number of suitors, including a miserly old baronet, Sir Pitt Crawley (Bob Hoskins), his son, the man she actually marries, Captain Rawdon Crawley (James Purefoy), and the sardonic, sinister Lord Steyne (Gabriel Byrne).

Becky's progress through English society provides a vehicle for the director's examination of the manners and behaviors of the privileged classes during the time of the Napoleonic Wars. The picture moves through a series of dinner parties and drawing rooms, showing the leisure activity of polite society, just how people with no discernible occupation, whose lives consisted mainly of leisure, amused themselves in that time. Now and then, moreover, a glimpse of darkness, poverty, and squalor reminds us that the England of Thackeray was also the England of Dickens.

The great visual strength of the movie, however, lies in a number of set pieces, moments that exist for the sheer joy of their gorgeous display. Aside from some outdoor scenes and sequences that recall some of the landscape paintings of the time, the director employs numerous extravagant settings to show the opulence and luxury of the wealthy at play --- a lavish garden party at a magnificent country house, an exotic dance performance, a riotously colorful if essentially irrelevant scene in India, and best of all, Thackeray's grand military ball in Belgium, where the beat of drums and the roar of cannon interrupt the stately music of the dance.

Given the length of the novel and the amplitude of its vision, the script necessarily omits a good deal of action and a number of people. Many important events --- marriages, births, deaths, for example --- take place off screen, forcing the actors to inform the audience of some drastic and occasionally surprising changes. The movie itself tends to translate the original text into plot, so that in effect, one thing happens after another in a direct, linear sequence, with little more than a cursory attempt to show context, subtlety, or development.

The cast in general performs in a manner suitable to the background, settings, and costumes, speaking generally in the polite, formal sentences of two hundred years ago, when a certain decorum ruled, even in the midst of luxury and venality. Since almost everything in the text must be subordinated to plot, the actors rarely find the opportunity to develop or vary their characters.

A few members of the cast stand out, especially Bob Hoskins, who plays Sir Pitt Crawley with a quantity of soiled gusto, apparently enjoying the role immensely. Even his grotesque proposal to Becky, as he asks her to become an old man's darling, conveys a certain wry humor and self awareness.

Vanity Fair may be a novel without a hero, but it remains a chronicle of one young woman's life, so the production must ultimately depend upon the performance of Reese Witherspoon. She fills the part adequately, but seems constrained by the limitations of the script and direction, so that she manages only a few expressions and a narrow range of emotional responses. She seems for the most part more a victim than a manipulator, suffering passively more often than scheming and acting, another casualty of the script's heavy reliance on plot.

The movie succeeds, however, mostly through its lively visual translation of an epic vision of a whole world, no easy task and no mean achievement. Its splendid colors and impressive sets recall the glory of Becky Sharp, as a kind of homage to the first full-color Technicolor picture. The color and energy of the concluding sequences may partially justify the director's odd transformation of Thackeray's ending, appearance conquering meaning, truth sacrificed to beauty.

Vanity Fair, starring Reese Witherspoon, Eileen Atkins, Jim Broadbent, Gabriel Byrne, Romola Garai, Bob Hoskins, Rhys Ifans, James Purefoy, Jonathan Rhys Meyers; based on the novel by William Makepeace Thackeray; directed by Mira Nair. Cinemark Tinseltown, Little Theatres, Loews Webster, Pittsford Plaza Cinema, Regal Henrietta.

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