What you may think of this movie depends on what drawing room costume melodrama you compare it to. If "The House of Mirth" is taken as the standard, then "Vanity Fair" is an award contender. Against "Mary Reilly", "The Affair of the Necklace" and like literary re-creations, it's swamped in a sea of likeness. It certainly has the deja vu factor because there's nothing new about the poor but talented beauty climbing up the ladder of society by causing rich men to abandon their heritage.
That said, Reese Witherspoon does her part as Becky Sharp full justice as she dons exquisite costumery and flutters her way around the halls and dinner tables of estates and grand manors. She's continually fascinating and almost makes Mira Nair's soupy direction seem effective. But not quite.
It's all about who has the money and who hasn't. The money game, the gain and loss of status, the bankruptcy, dowries, guineas and property substitute for what might serve as visceral drama. The poor girl dependent on the good graces of men is, in itself, tiresome--all the more so when it's of epic length.
This one is set in the time of the Napoleonic wars. It also concerns Becky's friendship with Amelia Smedley (Romola Garai) who is rich, good and dull, contrasting against our heroine's ambition, talent and cleverness.
A few good performances help the enterprise. Bob Hoskins as Sir Pitt Crawley is a standout for uniqueness of personality. Rhys Ifans actually displays a virile presence in a few scenes but this contribution falls apart later in a failure to inspire much tension. Gabriel Byrne provides his usual heavy shadings to the rich Marquess of Steyne who has a taste for the art of our Becky Sharp's father and who finally succumbs to his wholly predictable instincts.
But the few good performances, the fine textural lighting by cinematographer Declan Quinn, and the magnificence of the settings and wardrobe aside, writer Julian Fellowes and director Mira Nair's take on William Makepeace Thackeray's classic does little to elevate it from an ordinary, dull and safe repetition of too many of its rise-out-of-poverty period film predecessors. It has all the feel of a clone.
There's really only one reason to see it. It's the Witherspoon face and spirit of determination. You don't want to take your eyes off her and, fortunately, for an overlong 137 minutes, you don't have to.
The Soundtrack Album