September 26, 2005
Starring: Reese Witherspoon, Gabriel Byrne, Roger Lloyd-Pack, Ruth Sheen, Lillete Dubey, Romola Garai, Tony Maudsley, Deborah Findlay, John Franklyn-Robbins, Paul Bazely, Rhys Ifans, Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, Bob Hoskins, Jim Broadbent, ,
You’ve got to hand it to Reese Witherspoon. She began as a teenager in gritty indie movies earning acclaim from her performances in dark works, Freeway and Best Laid Plans before moving into bigger mainstream films like Pleasantville and then selling out and wasting the last few years on fluffy rom-coms. But perhaps that’s harsh. After all, the girl has certainly worked hard to be able to make the movies she wants to make. It’s just a shame she’s turned her back on more challenging roles. So is her return as Becky Sharp in Mira Nair’s Indian-flavoured adaptation of Vanity Fair her chance to flex her acting muscles once again or is it merely Sweet Home Alabama with ruffles?
Judged purely on its own terms and forgetting the many previous versions, this Vanity Fair suffers from the “seen it all before…or it seems like it” phenomenon, not least because it’s such a classic story, but because without a deft hand all period dramas can feel the same: the class struggle, the love triangle, the threat of war, the cleavage etc. You can see why they gave the job to Baji On The Beach director Mira Nair: to inject a new perspective. And visually at least, this is a success, but the story is the same so all her hard work is wasted.
Witherspoon acquits herself well as the scheming Becky Sharp, who comes from a less-than-respectful background and deems it necessary to use her wiles to climb the social ladder, but since the actress was heavily pregnant during filming we rarely see her below the chest and when we do its painfully obvious of her condition. The question looms: why didn’t they wait until she’d given birth? Well, in a period drama cleavage is everything and if awards were awarded for this alone then Vanity Fair would be the film of the year.
The rest of the cast looks impressive on paper (Bob Hoskins, Gabriel Byrne and Romola Garai) but the real surprise here is the growing versatility of one Rhys Ifans. Like Witherspoon, he began in darker movies (usually waving a gun or getting drunk) but has actually become a (drum roll please) Proper Actor. On the heels of his incredible performance as Peter Cook earlier this year, his role as the love-struck Dobbins, who is utterly unappreciated by single mum Amelia, is the only thing of mention in this film besides the beautiful costumes and locations.
So, overall this is a waste of time for all concerned and would have been unwelcome as another Sunday evening BBC period drama, let alone a big Hollywood movie. There’s a point where a good story is told so often and updated with new influences that you start to question what was so great about the story in the first place.
“The Women of Vanity Fair” is a relatively short featuette that shows how female-orientated this adaptation is, whilst “Welcome To Vanity Fair” is your basic American “making of.” There are trailers for other British hits such as Wimbledon, plus deleted scenes that include an alternate opening and more of Dobbin moping over Amelia. Nair’s commentary is dry but informative and certainly more interesting than the film itself.