Saturday, January 22, 2005

Vanity Fair

Vanity Fair
Directed by: Mira Nair
2004, rated PG-13
4 stars

Well-done adaptations of literature are difficult in general. A director must attempt to combine his or her own interpretation of the work with the audience’s possible interpretation, while at the same time making the film appealing to those who are not familiar with the original text. This problem emerges with everything from Harry Potter to Shakespeare, with varying levels of complexity. Adaptations of Victorian era literature, however, reach an entirely different degree of intricacy. There have been many adaptations of Victorian literature in recent years—Emma, Sense and Sensibility, The Importance of Being Ernest, An Ideal Husband, several different versions of Pride and Prejudice, including the modern interpretation, Bridget Jones’ Diary—and the latest addition to this collection is no less complicated and involved than its predecessors. Vanity Fair, directed by Mira Nair, follows the rise and fall of its socially ambitious characters on so many levels, it’s sometimes hard to tell when a particular character is up or down.

The film quickly develops its characters, categorizing them immediately as either rich or poor, and more specifically within those two classes, contented or unhappy. Reese Witherspoon plays the lead as Becky Sharp, a fitting name for the street-smart, head-strong, aspiring young woman. Sharp is determined throughout the film to rise above her poor station by any means possible, and as a woman, the best and only option open for her to achieve this is marriage. As she begins her almost ruthless pursuit of a wealthy husband the finer points of her character come more clearly into focus. Witherspoon confronts every obstacle presented to her with a sarcastic smirk, fitting perfectly with her quick-witted character. She is accompanied by an excellent cast, including two superb performances by Gabriel Byrne as the odiously wealthy Marques of Steyne, and Romola Garai as Becky’s best friend Amelia. The ability of the actors in this movie is vitally important, since each depends greatly on all the others. There are many major characters, and sometimes it’s difficult to keep them straight, especially on their rollercoaster rides through the different levels of societal classes. The acting is also important for filling the gaps sometimes left in the swift moving plot. Since there is only so much one can cram into a two hour film, some aspects are slightly underdeveloped, and the audience is left to guess at certain motives or sudden changes in decision. The ability of the actors smoothes over these wrinkles and keeps the film flowing.

Vanity Fair opens with an interesting sequence mainly revolving around peacocks and unfolding rose petals. While a bit obvious and heavy handed, this imagery really does accurately represent the film. Nair carries these metaphors throughout the film, clothing her characters in sometimes absurdly colorful costumes to emphasize their strutting, peacock-esque manner. Nair uses color all through the film to convey the meaning of a scene, such as when Becky Sharp, dressed all in black, must confront and infiltrate the closed society of the female elite, all nearly identical in matching white. Nair’s imagery is not subtle, but while this could diminish the effectiveness in another context, the plot of Vanity Fair is so complicated in its twists and undulations that it’s nice to have some aspect of the film be clear and obvious.

The film also provides a nice recreation of old London, and places a nice emphasis, in respects to architecture and cinematography, on the contrast between the very wealthy and the very poor in this time period. So, if you enjoy a plot with many twists and turns, and especially enjoy Victorian adaptations, this film is excellent. Or if not, at least the costumes are pretty.

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