“Vanity Fair,” the dark story of unscrupulous social climber Becky Sharp (Reese Witherspoon), is played by its star-studded cast as a tale of pseudo-feminist success, falling far short of the novel’s precedent.
Witherspoon, in a role that is a far cry from her recent success as Elle Woods in “Legally Blonde,” enters a territory that is probably unfamiliar to her typical audience. A film about social class in the time of the Napoleonic wars, “Vanity Fair” documents the struggles, success and ultimate failure of Becky Sharp across the British Empire. By deceiving anyone who ever loved her, Sharp assumes that she will rise through society’s ranks, but her deceit adds up, and finally turns on her.
Unfortunately, Witherspoon does not stretch her acting talents far enough and retains her trademark cherubic beauty and innocence despite the evil plottings of her character. Unlike the Becky Sharp of the William Makepeace Thackeray novel, Witherspoon’s Sharp charms her way into good standing without ever sacrificing any dignity or virginity for most of the movie. Even at the end, as a defeated bar matron, Witherspoon’s appearance is not tarnished by guilt, age or the depredation of her surroundings. The viewer is left with no means to believe the rosy-cheeked Witherspoon as the inherently selfish and evil Ms. Sharp. Potentially, this is just a symptom of poor casting, but either way, the young starlet simply cannot be mean enough for the role.
Despite various too-subtle hints as to Becky’s dishonorable intentions, it basically seems like Sharp gets her way by being a sweet, loving, Legally Blonde Englishwoman until two hours into the film, when her true manipulative nature is finally revealed. Thus, the viewer is blind-sided by her apparent sudden loss of morals. This shock is strongest when Becky out of nowhere begins an affair with a wealthy older man, the Marquis of Steyne (Gabriel Byrne.) Were this transition handled better, with a clear progression from youthful desires for fame and fortune to the jaded cruelty that temporarily wins Becky her place in society, the whole film would have been more believable. Incidentally, this transition is handled correctly in the novel, which succeeds as a commentary on the class and gender struggles of Britain in the early 1800s. Instead, here we empathize with Becky most of the time and are left staggering when she does something to reveal her underlying cruelty.
Meanwhile, in contrast with Becky’s strength, beauty and control of all situations and acquaintances, those around her are bumbling fools. Recognizable by face if not by name, the supporting cast is a rag-tag crew of famous character actors playing weak women, lustful men or simply idiotic fools, most of whom Becky manipulates to aid her climb. Her husband (James Purefoy) is kind, but too genuine to ever suspect his wife’s conniving ways. Her best friend (Romola Garai) is simple-minded and oblivious to both Becky and her husband George’s ulterior motives. One character even affects a high-pitched and chirping voice that seems so exaggerated that it must have been added simply for comic effect. Because her supporting cast lacks so much depth — more caricatures than sympathetic three- (even two-) dimensional characters — we cannot even be that upset when Becky bends them to her will.
The most redeeming quality of this film is its sheer aesthetic appeal. From the elegant parties in Brussels and London, to the adapted gowns in bright jewel tones, to the scenic shots of colonial India, the beauty of the movie is arresting. Costumer Beatrix Aruna Pasztor strayed from the virginal pastels of true 19th century aristocrats, and the colorful ball gowns contrast strongly with the mass confusion of a war-threatened London.
Overall the movie is beautifully — if overdramatically — shot, but falls short both of advancing Witherspoon’s reputation as a well-rounded actress and enlightening its audience as to the consequences of selfish social climbing.