Lots of Flair, Not Enough Fire

  • We all recognize Becky Sharp. Ever since William Makepeace Thackeray created her more than 150 years ago, she has been the universally recognized embodiment of the social climber, in her case trying to rise out of poverty to a respectable position in a society — Georgian England — more rigidly stratified than any we know. In that delicately poised world, speaking the wrong word, using the wrong fork, could mean disaster, and the suspense in Vanity Fair derives largely from our anxious observation of Becky navigating a vast sea of swells.

    We have to like Becky, and thanks to Reese Witherspoon's perky performance we do, not least because we have all been in her position, desperate to impress our betters. Moreover, director Mira Nair has created a pretty panorama — populated with solid actors like Bob Hoskins and Gabriel Byrne — of English life in the Georgian era for Becky to master. It is more exotic than Thackeray's, more laden with the booty of a burgeoning colonial empire, but Nair, Indian by birth, is entitled to her opinions about the exploitations on which England's wealth was based.

    Yet there's something about her Vanity Fair that doesn't quite work. There is no depth beneath its bright surfaces, no potent emotional undercurrents. One thinks of Stanley Kubrick's Barry Lyndon, also based on a Thackeray novel about an ill-born social outsider on the rise. It too was a beautiful film, but it did not merely record a lost world; it peered at it — as if the fold of a dress or the knot of a cravat might possibly contain the secret of life. Or at least a useful clue to correct behavior.

    Then, too, it was touched by an ineffable sadness. Its vanities were all in vain. Thackeray said he was writing about pompous, self-satisfied people trying to live without God or humility. It makes no difference if you see their furious scurryings existentially or traditionally. You must impute some larger resonance to them. Otherwise you are left with only a twittering among the teacups — or a vanity fair.