When William Makepeace Thackeray created Becky Sharp, the scheming, thoroughly amoral antiheroine of his savage, 1848 satirical masterpiece, Vanity Fair: A Novel Without a Hero, he could have had Reese Witherspoon in mind: Who else could play a young woman who combines the ruthless ambition of a Tracy Flick (ELECTION) and the butter-wouldn't-melt-in-her-mouth...read more
When William Makepeace Thackeray created Becky Sharp, the scheming, thoroughly amoral antiheroine of his savage, 1848 satirical masterpiece, Vanity Fair: A Novel Without a Hero, he could have had Reese Witherspoon in mind: Who else could play a young woman who combines the ruthless ambition of a Tracy Flick (ELECTION) and the butter-wouldn't-melt-in-her-mouth sweetness of Elle Woods (LEGALLY BLONDE)? It comes as a huge disappointment, then, that having cast Witherspoon as Miss Sharp, director Mira Nair and Oscar-winning screenwriter Julian Fellowes (GOSFORD PARK) were unable to resist that impulse to find 21st-century prototypes in 19th-century literary characters, fictional creations whose values lie not in the way they reflect our own narcissistic times, but the way they reveal so much about their own. So instead of Thackeray's Becky, a calculating adventuress who's only able to claw her way into high society because she has neither a heart nor a conscience to stop her, we get Becky the protofeminist (Witherspoon), a plucky gal of humble origins who thumbs her nose at the glass ceiling imposed by 19th-century English society. Born to a starving artist (Roger Lloyd Pack) and a French opera singer, Becky secures a position as governess to the children of slovenly aristocrat Sir Pitt Crawley (Bob Hoskins) at his miserable country estate. As awful as her new surroundings may be, Becky finds herself in the perfect position to woo not only the lord's son, dashing Capt. Rawdon Crawley (James Purefoy), but also Sir Pitt's spinster sister, Miss Matilda Crawley (Eileen Atkins), who controls the purse strings of the family fortune. As Becky's star rises, the fortunes of her dear friend Amelia Sedley (Romola Garai), an innocent lamb engaged to despicable wolf Capt. George Osborne (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers), take a tumble. Amelia's father (John Franklyn-Robbins) faces financial ruin, and her loathsome future father-in-law (Jim Broadbent) forbids his son to marry the newly impoverished girl. And there are even darker clouds looming on the horizon: Napoleon is back from Elba and cutting a swath toward Waterloo, where his army is due for a fateful encounter with Captains Crawley and Osborne, as well as the one person who truly loves Amelia, awkward Lt. Dobbin (Rhys Ifans). The main trouble with softening Becky is that after a certain point she no longer makes sense: Thackeray's plot eventually requires her to act in ways that are entirely at odds with Nair's more heroic conception of Becky. Witherspoon and the cast are fine, however, and the production design is stunning: Sumptuously Orientalist visions of India are never far from Nair's British Empire, but without the kind of commentary on the Raj that would have made the film a far more interesting experience.