Vanity Fair Review

Anthony Nield has reviewed the Region 2 release of Vanity Fair. Though impressively rendered on disc, the film can’t help but disappoint.

Given the erratic nature of her career since wining the Camera D’Or at the 1988 Cannes Film Festival with Salaam Bombay!, it is perhaps unfair to expect of Mira Nair a follow-up to Monsoon Wedding that is in the same class. Her choice, however, is interesting as well as adventurous: a big-budget adaptation of William Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, her second period drama following Kama Sutra : A Tale of Love and the first major big screen version of the novel since Rouben Mamoulian made Becky Sharp in 1935. Nair’s an interesting choice as director as it has been the leftfield filmmakers – and ones not best known for their work in period dramas – who have produced the more intriguing additions to the genre in the past decade or so: Martin Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence, Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility, Patricia Rozema’s Mansfield Park.

So what does Nair bring to Thackeray’s novel and his heroine Becky Sharp, a lowly governess who uses her calculation and manipulation to move up the society status ranks in early nineteenth century England? Perhaps unsurprisingly, the most prominent input on her part is the teasing out of the colonial elements inherent in Vanity Fair and therefore an Indian flavour. It’s an aspect that becomes most notable in the look of the film, with the autumnal colours of reds, oranges and greens present throughout and even managing to inveigle themselves into the dreariest of English rain sodden scenes. Indeed, there’s an exoticism inherent all the way through Vanity Fair, making itself known in the set design, costume design and the casting of the only American amongst a cast of all-star Brits, Reese Witherspoon, in the lead role.

Yet this focus on the external qualities of the film is demonstrative of Nair’s focus on the details as opposed to the bigger picture. During her commentary she continually points out the tiniest of references back to Thackeray’s source, but there is never any lip service paid towards the narrative’s overall dynamic. Certainly, the immensity of the novel has been boiled down to a pacy two hours-plus screen time, yet this never allows us to truly engage with the characters. For all the immediacy there is no actual connection and this proves especially damaging for a period drama, as the genre must try harder than most to engage with a mainstream audience. And, after all, with Witherspoon attached post-Legally Blonde, this is exactly what the filmmakers are chasing.

However, Witherspoon proves to be Vanity Fair’s biggest problem. Ever since Alexander Payne tapped into her more dislikeable characteristics with Election there has always been a faintly loathsome edge to her characters, specifically those demonstrating any form of intelligence. Given Becky Sharp’s ruthlessness and sense of control this aspect should be key, yet is sadly nowhere to be found. Moreover, Witherspoon also has a knack of portraying even the most lightweight characters with the utmost conviction (see Sweet Home Alabama or Legally Blonde 2), but again its a quality not to be found here. Whereas Sharp’s anti-heroine status should make her an ambiguous and complex lead, Witherspoon’s rendering leaves her strangely anonymous. And for the central role of any film, let alone this particular work, that can only prove ultimately fatal.

The Disc

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Vanity Fair arrives on disc in fine condition. The richness of the film’s palette is ably captured and presented in the original aspect ratio of 2.35:1, anamorphically of course. Indeed, there is little problem with either the more exotic Indian – or Indian themed – scenes or those set in London during the dankest of months. Likewise, the DD5.1 sound mix proves equally adept at capturing both the dialogue and Eastern-tinged score.

As for the extras, the major inclusion is Nair’s commentary. As said, she focuses mainly on the details of the filming process, with especial attention paid to the look of the film and its capturing of Thackeray’s essence if you will. In this respect the talk track disappoints as we never really escape the technical side of Vanity Fair, although there is some interest provoked when Nair turns her attention to the affect Monsoon Wedding’s success had on the film or when she touches on the Bollywood influence.

Two featurettes also find a place on the disc. The first, entitled ‘Welcome to Vanity Fair’ is standard EPK fare and blighted with a hideous voice-over, though it does prove interesting insofar as it really tries to sell the film to a modern audience. The second, ’The Women of Vanity Fair’ is more rewarding and focuses on the largely female crew that Nair had to work with. Being a largely intelligent bunch, the interviewees have plenty of interesting things to say, although there is perhaps too much focus on Witherspoon’s pregnancy during the filming stages.

Rounding of the special features are a batch of trailers for other Universal releases (Wimbledon, etc.) plus seven deleted/extended/alternative scenes. Though no context is given for the latter (there‘s no optional commentary for starters), they are provided in chronological order from an alternative titles sequence to an alternative ending. Most are barely seconds long and inconsequential, although this extended (by five minutes) finale does prove interesting.

As with the main feature, optional English subtitles are available for all special features including the commentary.

Anthony Nield

Updated: May 07, 2005

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