Combustible Celluloid
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With: Reese Witherspoon, Eileen Atkins, Jim Broadbent, Gabriel Byrne, Romola Garai, Bob Hoskins, Rhys Ifans, Geraldine McEwan, James Purefoy, Jonathan Rhys Meyers
Written by: Matthew Faulk, Mark Skeet, Julian Fellowes, based on the novel by William Makepeace Thackeray
Directed by: Mira Nair
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some sensuality/partial nudity and a brief violent image
Running Time: 141
Date: 09/01/2004

Vanity Fair (2004)

2 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

'Fair' to Middling

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Every year someone rolls out another of those very polite adaptationsof a classic novel, done very expertly and unobtrusively in theMerchant-Ivory style. They rarely offer anything unusual, but thisyear's Vanity Fair held a vague fascination.

For one thing, it comes from William Makepeace Thackeray (1811-1863), whose voluminous works are very hard to adapt to the screen; no one had even tried since Stanley Kubrick's masterpiece Barry Lyndon in 1975.

For another thing, the director this time is Mira Nair, the Indian-born director of 2002's art house hit Monsoon Wedding, as well as the acclaimed debut Salaam Bombay! (1988). Could she possibly inject some color into the dull, dull costume epic, I wondered?

The answer is both yes and no. Tiny bits, really a few fleeting moments, of the story take place in India, and Nair films those scenes with the most loving, breathtaking care. They suddenly spring to life like little impurities in an otherwise heavy, monotonous quilt.

Other than that, Vanity Fair is just more of the same. Reese Witherspoon stars as Becky Sharp, a clever, self-reliant nanny who bounces from job to job. An orphan who sprung from show-biz parents, she's considered low caste. But her superior guile allows her to snake her way into ever higher and more refined company.

Like a slightly more educated Legally Blonde, Witherspoon plays these scenes well. But eventually Becky begins to face heavier challenges, attempting to pay bills and buy food while saddled with a no-good gambler of a husband (James Purefoy), and the actress' spunk fails her. In 1999, with her tour-de-force performance in Election, Witherspoon was poised on the brink of greatness, but her ever-inflating Hollywood paycheck and her increasingly stupid script choices (Sweet Home Alabama, Legally Blonde 2) have knocked her down to a more ordinary and realistic level.

The film's supporting cast, notably Eileen Atkins and Bob Hoskins, does their best but they tend to fold under Becky Sharp's scene stealing. Very few of them spring to life, and none of them would ever deserve a movie or a novel of their own.

Students assigned to read Thackeray's 1000-page paperweight this fall will find Nair's film a respectable short cut, and perhaps Oscar voters will find something to love here (perhaps some intriguing costume designs), but for the rest of us, Vanity Fair is a snooze.

DVD Details: Distributed by Universal, Focus Features has selected this film for its "Spotlight Series." The DVD includes a director commentary track by Mira Nair, a generic making-of featurette, a featurette about the women behind the film, and deleted scenes.

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