Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

A Director's 'Vanity' Project

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

A Director's 'Vanity' Project

Article excerpt

If Mira Nair's film of "Vanity Fair" seems dense and sprawling, with the colorful cast of characters practically tripping over each other, it may be because of its source material. William Makepeace Thackeray's novel, about how a poor artist's daughter named Becky Sharp seizes every opportunity to climb to the top of society, started as a serial. Ms. Nair describes it as a "page turner."

How does Nair - born in India, educated at Harvard, and a resident of Uganda when she's not making films in India or the United States - come to film this latest version of an early-19th- century British novel? Easily, as it turns out.

"It has been one of the most beloved novels to me since I was 16 in an Irish Catholic boarding school in India," she recalls. "What I love is that the chief character of the novel is the world."

Those not familiar with the novel may assume that Nair has inserted a variety of references to India into this satiric look at the British middle classes, but such is not the case. Thackeray himself was born in India, where his parents were part of the growing British presence there. According to Nair, any adaptation of a 900-page novel is going to involve choices by the filmmakers, but nearly all of the India material is pure Thackeray.

"All of it is in the novel except the last shot," she said. Scenes of Becky (played by American actress Reese Witherspoon) trying chili peppers, or another character showing off an ornate vest, are "iconic moments" in the book, according to the director. "I would like to think Thackeray would be smiling."

The story follows Becky's rise in a class system that was changing due to England's growing wealth as an international power. Money from the empire's colonies was fueling the middle class, explains Nair, and that led to the social upheaval the story explores.

The character of Becky is, in many ways, a woman ahead of her time. She refuses to be defined by her birth or her marriage, and takes matters into her own hands when she has to, ideas that might seem heroic today but bordered on the unheard of in pre-Victorian England. …

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