Magazine article The New Yorker

Power Plays; the Current Cinema

Magazine article The New Yorker

Power Plays; the Current Cinema

Article excerpt

No film of "Vanity Fair" can be true to Thackeray's novel, nor should it be. Bad faith, with occasional slivers of good, was his most pullulating theme, and woe betide any director who dogs the book with devotion. Better by far to fool around with it and grab what turns you on. The novel will be with us forever, but the movie is a one-night stand.

Spinning at the hub of the story is Becky Sharp (Reese Witherspoon). In the eyes of the early nineteenth century, she is a nobody, possessed of nothing more than brains, beauty, bilingualism, a fine dress sense, a lashing wit, the sexual heat of a lioness, and the singing voice of a lark. And what are such fripperies, pray, without an income of five thousand a year? The film, like the book, follows Becky's determination to find a fortune and hence become a somebody. She tags along with Amelia Sedley (Romola Garai), her best (or most serviceable) friend, sliding glossily into the Sedley household and almost into the heart of Amelia's brother Jos (Tony Maudsley). Jos's heart is dear to him, being tolerably near to his stomach, yet he rebuffs the temptress, on the glowering advice of George Osborne (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), Amelia's intended. That, anyway, is the movie's explanation; Thackeray, more stoutly, removed Jos from the scene by the simple expedient of getting him drunk on punch. Love dies before a hangover.

Round Two, and Becky, as a governess, enters the enchanted circle of the Crawleys, who hail from one of the most distinguished and flyblown rumps of the aristocracy. Sir Pitt Crawley (Bob Hoskins), who molders away in a rural mansion, has one stiff son, Pitt (Douglas Hodge), and one loose one, Rawdon (James Purefoy). There is also a wicked old bat of an aunt, Matilda (Eileen Atkins), on the mysteries of whose forthcoming will the family drools and hangs. Any American viewer who still harbors glamorous fantasies about the British upper class will be cured, once and for all, by ten minutes among the Crawleys. If the foul Scotch broth served at dinner, and announced as "Potage de Mouton a l'Ecossaise," doesn't do the trick, the sight of Matilda Crawley removing her wig and scratching at the wispy pate beneath, presumably in search of noble fleas, should mark the official closing of a dream.

And so, triumphantly, to the elopements. Such is the vinegar that runs in the author's veins that neither of his leading ladies is honored with a satisfactory wedding. Becky hooks up with Rawdon, Amelia with George, and both men are cut off from their inheritance--indeed, George's name is elided from the Osborne family Bible, his social death prefiguring his actual demise in the Battle of Waterloo. Something dies, too, in the movie in the aftermath of war. Amelia fades like a flower, to be revived at the finale by the loyal Major Dobbin (Rhys Ifans), while Becky continues her ascent, the value of which is in directly inverse proportion to its desirability. Freezing out her husband and, far worse, their only child, she falls prey to the dark-browed Marquess of Steyne (Gabriel Byrne), who glitters thickly with the boredom that attends incalculable wealth. His revered name is pronounced "stain," and, once he has oozed into Becky's existence, he cannot be washed away.

The deviser of these niceties is Mira Nair, the Indian director, educated at Harvard, who brought us "Salaam Bombay!" and "Monsoon Wedding." She is more qualified than most for the task of transplanting Thackeray to the screen, being blessed with a contemporary, as opposed to a historical, grasp of the comical oppressions in which he dealt. I had great difficulty convincing friends that the crux of "Monsoon Wedding"--a young Indian flying home from Houston, Texas, to an arranged marriage--was remotely plausible these days, whereas nothing about it, apart from the airplanes, would have been news to Thackeray. He himself was born in India, in 1811, leaving at the age of five; his grandfather and his father had both toiled there in the service of the Empire. …

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