The dynamic between filmmaker and audience usually contains a certain quid pro quo. It’s fine to ask a lot of us, humble viewers — in fact, the word “demanding” is often high praise out of the mouth of a film critic — but it is also okay for us to expect something in return: an emotional payoff, say, or the feeling of having been thoroughly hoodwinked. Even the solution to a mystery will do or, failing that, just a sense of satisfaction from having risen to the challenge. It’s a back-and-forth, not a one-way street; we give and we take, and the movie does the same.
Mira Nair’s adaptation of William Makepeace Thackeray’s Vanity Fair takes and takes and takes, and returns next to nothing. It takes a Herculean effort to keep up with the scores of characters and their labyrinthine interactions — an ordinary movie will yield between a page and two pages of scribbling in my little notebook; Vanity Fair netted a full five pages of observations, plotlines and points to remember; sometimes I felt like I was diagramming. I’m not even sure I could tell you how “involving” the film is in a conventional sense; all I know is that my frantic attempts not to lose any plot threads kept me from being bored.
And then after we’ve done our part, fulfilled our part of the bargain and then some, the movie skips town. Sure, it concludes pretty neatly, wraps up its loose ends, sends its characters on their way to wherever they’re going, but we, the intrepid viewers, get nothing. Not having enough invested in any of the scores of characters, I wanted more, dammit; something to make the characters resonate in my memory, something to make the movie matter. It doesn’t matter. There’s nothing particularly wrong with it; Nair has put together a perfectly acceptable period exercise, competently shot, well-written, more or less coherent, occasionally amusing. But watching it is the equivalent of investing ten million dollars at 0.2% interest. Our hands close on air.
The cast should be Vanity Fair‘s primary draw, with Reese Witherspoon stepping into the difficult role of Becky Sharp, the governess who marries and wheedles and insinuates herself far above her station. Unlike some of her contemporaries (most notably Cameron Diaz), Witherspoon doesn’t seem in the least out of place in a period setting, having previously donned 19th century garb two years ago in The Importance of Being Earnest; “spunk” is her stock-in-trade, and this role is interesting in the way it transplants that quality wholesale to a different setting. There’s a fair bit of Legally Blonde here after all.
One undeniably fascinating theme that the film doesn’t bring to fruition is the idea of Becky Sharp not being a social climber after all but rather a kind soul who climbs the ladder only half-wittingly, and mostly through a desire to do right by the people she knows and serves. There isn’t very much of the vindictive in her, and only a token share of cunning; mostly, she acts out of love and loyalty, even if this isn’t always obvious, and is only perceived as a ruthless socialite by others. It’s too bad the movie eventually decides to paint her as “mischievous” in order to give the last act a vapid sense of intrigue; there were several more interesting directions Nair could have gone without even changing the story.
There’s some more good stuff. Both Thackeray and Nair were born in India, and Nair emphasizes the Indian elements of the tale, even including an elaborate dance routine with the very game Witherspoon front and center. Jim Broadbent shows up, and proves once again that no one can end a sentence with “sir” quite the way he can. Jonathan Rhys-Meyers sneers and scoffs with the best of them, Rhys Ifans impresses in a rare dramatic performance, and Romola Garai (Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights) shows again that she is one of our most promising young actresses. Eileen Atkins comes up with some terrific lines as the ornery Aunt Matilda; asked what the family should pray for, she responds with “better food and a warmer room.”
But I don’t know how else to put it: the film is not significant, and at two-and-a-half grueling hours, it needs to be. When I realized that I wasn’t going to be rewarded for my efforts, I felt cheated. This isn’t what I was talking about when I mentioned the feeling of being hoodwinked. No, this isn’t a satisfying feeling at all; actually, it’s rather depressing.