Reese Witherspoon shines in period drama ‘Vanity Fair’
August 31, 2004
A lot is riding on this movie for Reese Witherspoon, who returns after the dreadful sequel to the surprise hit “Legally Blonde,” which would have done well without the second serving, thank you.
Based on the novel by William Thackeray and directed by Mira Nair, “Vanity Fair” has Witherspoon playing social climber Becky Sharp, born into poverty but with aspirations to change her status and become an upper-class citizen at all costs. Witherspoon has the spunk and edge in her to pull off the lead character here.
The adaptation from such a classic novel to the big screen is not an easy undertaking. It’s unimaginable to take such a classic and whittle it down to a mere 11Ú2-hour tale without losing many of the nuances that the book has to offer. I mean, just six years ago, television took a crack at it when “Vanity Fair” was a mini-series. Ironically, the lead of Becky Sharp went to Natasha Little for the television version and she plays Becky’s sister-in-law, Lady Jane Sheepshanks, in the big-screen adaptation here.
Becky’s partner-in-crime, Amelia (Romola Garai), is along to assist in the art of snagging a husband. In fact, most of the movie centers on their game of marrying into wealth, and after the first 45 minutes it does get rather repetitive. The story also becomes a little too intertwined with secondary non-stories that seem to weigh the rest of the picture down. And Witherspoon, while adept at being Becky, almost seems too modern at times, but maybe that’s because she hasn’t done a role that has taken her back in time since “The Importance of Being Earnest,” or when she wound up in “Pleasantville,” which thrusted her back in time to the ’50s. Her period pieces are somewhat spotty at best.
The supporting cast, however, is more than up to the task of playing roles from the same era. The aforementioned Garai was perfectly cast as the best friend, but it’s Gabriel Byrne who really shines. He is excellent as the seedy Marquis Steyne, a powerful man of wealth and status, which is everything in this world of prestige amongst the socialites of the day. Being from Ireland himself, Byrne almost relishes in the role of high-society brat amongst the well-to-do types of England.
Nair displays her trademark directing here as she did for the exquisite “Monsoon Wedding” back in 2001. She has always been very efficient when it comes to details. The director/writer/producer has had a string of very original pieces to her credit. Her re-creation of early 19th-century London is full of details, from the elaborate sets down to the costumes of the day. Even in the historical scenes for the Battle of Waterloo, Nair pays particular attention to the horrors of the conflict in graphic detail.
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All in all, “Vanity Fair” is a good movie to close the summer season, but one that will be forgotten by the time the studios begin churning out the Oscar contenders in November. Still, it’s always fun to watch the growth of Reece Witherspoon. Let’s hope she takes on more challenging scripts with better results.