On the surface, Vanity Fair has much promise, but the finished product is a rather dull film carried by clichÃ©s and standout performances. Amassing moderate Oscar buzz over Reese Witherspoon’s performance and public interest, Vanity Fair fails miserably to excite or offer a new perception into 18th century Europe and its hierarchy.
Witherspoon and Gabriel Byrne are Vanity Fair’s two strongest performances. Byrne is fantastic despite very limited screen time and a sadly underwritten character. Witherspoon, whose true talent is being absolutely adorable, more than makes up for a resume filled with dimwitted flicks such as Sweet Home Alabama and Legally Blonde 2: Red, White and Blonde.
Mira Nair’s direction is impeccable, with sleek style and an eye for dramatic moments, but the problem is the screenplay. The story behind Vanity Fair is a classic, but the movie does little more than fall into all the trappings that overrun a majority of period films.
Becky Sharp (Witherspoon) aspired only to climb the social ladder and be more than what others expected of her, using anything at her disposal to escape the life she was chosen to lead. Instead, she longed to be part of high society, no matter what the cost.
In the midst of it all, Becky finds love in soldier Rawdon Crawley (James Purefoy), and together they have a child.
With a boost from Beau Brummell Steyne (Byrne), Becky quickly begins to ascend the social ranks and even performs in front of the King of England; but her insatiable need for love and admiration eventually costs the young socialite true happiness.
Witherspoon delivers the best performance of her career, but when compared to her work in the Legally Blonde franchise and her ill-conceived appearance in Little Nicky, Vanity Fair is just one positive step in the right direction. Her charm brings Becky off the screen and turns a somewhat unlikable character into one that no audience can hate. Witherspoon seems to have stolen a few pages from Angelina Jolie’s playbook. First star in a few critically acclaimed films (Pleasantville, Election), then accept any halfway decent screenplay that crosses your path (Sweet Home Alabama). While the early word of Academy gold may have been a stretch, Witherspoon is positioning herself to become a great actress.
Supporting players such as Purefoy and Romola Garai (Becky’s best friend Amelia) highlight Witherspoon’s role, but also serve to ground the daydreaming vixen. Byrne finally takes on a role in a film other than the B-thrillers he’s been starring in lately. Leaving behind the wretched Ghost Ship and the completely ridiculous End of Days, Byrne has put his talent to good use in this picture.
Nair seems poised to continue growing as a director. From TV’s Hysterical Blindness to 2001’s Monsoon Wedding, she’s clearly evolving her craft into more commercial fares, and Vanity Fair is nearly flawlessly executed.
While other components of the film come together quite nicely, the most important aspect of Vanity Fair seems dated and repetitive. The movie’s story comes from William Makepeace Thackeray’s novel, but the transition from dusty pages to the silver screen was a rough one, as the storyline basically forced the film to travel familiar grounds and made the same statements with the usual dry situational humor that has long filled English period pieces.
Vanity Fair has everything in place but the single most important element: The film doesn’t reveal anything about the time that hasn’t already been shown before. The predictable and rather boring plot leaves little reason for moviegoers to even bother.