Oh, Vanity Fair! My heart leaped when I read that Reese Witherspoon, one of my favorite twinkling-eyed comediennes, both gorgeous and funny, was set to play, in Mira Nair’s new film version, Victorian novelist William Makepeace Thackeray’s good-looking, cravingly ambitious social climber Becky Sharp, who claws her way to the top–almost–of English society during the Napoleonic wars.
I read and relished “Vanity Fair” when I was 12 years old, although my feelings were never with the unscrupulous Becky but with her sweet but romantically addled friend Amelia and her patient admirer, Captain Dobbin, condemned to love Amelia from a distance after she makes the mistake of giving her heart and hand to the worthless George Osborne. Becky, of course, takes it a shade too far as she uses her looks, her wits, her talents, her good taste, her husband, and her young son on her scrounge to get ahead, and she duly suffers her downfall after being essentially responsible for her husband’s death. Of course, since Becky is Becky, she manages to wriggle out of her disgrace at the last minute by marrying Amelia’s brother, Joseph, who although he is none too good-looking, is mad about Becky and has a respectable enough position as a colonial administrator in India. Thackery subtitled his 1848 novel “A Novel Without a Hero,” and sure enough, Becky is no heroine. The book’s title is a nod to John Bunyan’s “Pilgrim’s Progress” in which Vanity Fair (itself a nod to “O vanity of vanities!” in the Bible) is the world itself and its blandishments of wealth, ease and social status, the supreme temptation for Christian the pilgrim. Becky is Christian in reverse. Vanity Fair is thus a deeply moral tale as well as a historical novel and a stinging piece of social satire. I’m certain that Becky was a model for Margaret Mitchell’s Scarlett O’Hara, another delightful but ruthless manipulator of men during wartime in “Gone With the Wind.”
So I naturally had to see Nair’s new film version of my old favorite. My report: Witherspoon is duly lovely, there is many a handsome fella (Gabriel Byrne, Bob Hoskins) in starched, chin-hugging Romantic-era collar and military epaulets, and Eileen Atkins steals the movie as the shrewd, rich, tough-as-carriage-reins spinster Miss Crawley. And the Empire costumes are swell–or mostly swell. Didn’t all respectable women back then wear bonnets when they went out, just as women of my mother’s generation always pinned on a hat? It was disconcerting to see a chapeau-less and tousel-headed Witherspoon in nearly every outdoor frame. And that thigh-revealing, feather-decked costume that Becky dons in the movie to dance Salome-style in front of the dissolute King George IV (a scene not in the book, by the way) is more Josephine Baker than Empress Josephine.
And those costumes lead directly to the movie’s main flaw: Not only are Victorian days long gone, but we (by which I mean director Nair) can’t even understand the point of one of that era’s greatest novels. This is 2004, when the rush for political correctness has replaced our society’s moral concerns. Reese Witherspoon’s Becky is no heroine, all right: she’s a victim. Of–guess what?–the class system! (Political correctness always rests on a Marxist substrate.). Poor Becky–she tries and tries, and yes, she makes a few mistakes, as might be expected–but those mean old dukes and dutchesses and families whose titles go back to the days of Henry II just keep rejecting her and pushing her back. All because her mother was an opera singer (in the book, Becky’s ma’s career was a shade more louche–she was a dancer–but Nair wants to make the point that Becky’s at heart a classy gal who never got a break.)
Colonialism and its evils are another obligatory theme of the movie, a theme that of course is nowhere to be found in Thackeray’s novel. Just as a slave-ship somehow (and quite a-historically) ended up in the English Channel in the recent film version of Jane Austen’s “Mansfield Park,” the Indian-born Nair, with a credit-crawl nod to colonialism-theorist Edward Said, turns early 19th-century India into a joyous, uninhibited, classless paradise whose inhabitants literally dance in the streets–in contrast to the snobbish English who take over. No matter that traditional Indian society was–and still is–the most class-conscious society on earth. There was never such a thing as an Indian Becky Sharp.
In short, 2004 doesn’t seem to be the year to see one of your favorite works of fiction made into a movie–unless you want to see yet another rehash of the ideological preoccupations of 21st-century intellectuals instead of a faithful cinematic rendering of a delicious old book.