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Thursday, Sept. 2, 2004 12:23 pm

movie review

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Vanity Fair

Lush adaptation of Vanity Fair succeeds despite a few discordant notes

Mira Nair's adaptation of William Makepeace Thackeray's Vanity Fair generally adheres to the novel's theme and plot and even survives Nair's decision to inject a touch of modern feminism.

For those who haven't read the book or seen earlier film adaptations, Vanity Fair tells the story of Becky Sharp (Reese Witherspoon), a resourceful and ambitious young woman. An orphan reared in a boarding school, Becky first finds employment in the home of Sir Pitt Crawley (Bob Hoskins), which she runs like a well-oiled machine. But it's too lowly a position for our plucky young heroine, and she soon begins her social ascension by charming Aunt Matilda (Eileen Atkins) so that she might move in with her at her home in London and have a crack at high society. There, Becky wows the stuffed shirts she encounters with her boldness and marries Matilda's nephew Rawdon (James Purefoy), which gives her instant status. The Napoleonic Wars throw off Becky's timetable a bit and ruin her marriage, yet when she comes under the sway of the Marquess of Steyne (Gabriel Byrne), she realizes her own potential for deceit and social success.

Nair's broad canvas reflects that of Thackeray's novel. The film is a visual treat, from the ornate ballrooms and estates to the grimy London streets. She does a fine job as well keeping the film moving at a brisk pace. However, Becky seems far too modern in her attitudes, an obvious departure from the Thackeray novel. And an oddball musical sequence that would seem more at home in a Bollywood production nearly derails the film completely. That said, Witherspoon shines, giving an assured performance; like her screen counterpart, she succeeds in conquering an arena that some would think beyond her reach. Visually dynamic, and engaging throughout, Vanity Fair succeeds because Nair is able to remain truer to Thackeray's vision than to her own.

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