Vanity Fair, which is now available on video and DVD, not to be confused with the popular magazine; the film details the rises and falls of Becky Sharp, an ardent social climber in early 19th-century England. From its first moments, the film sharply (sorry) contrasts the upper and lower strata of British society and, like its source, William Makepeace Thackeray's classic novel, has not very much use for either of the crusts. As the traveler between them, Becky (played by Reese Witherspoon) schemes and insinuates herself into various situations which will make her more socially acceptable, not to say prominent. But all she achieves, in this tight-laced, limited membership world, is infamy.
Director Mira Nair, working with her first big-budget, big-cast film, partly succeeds in catching Thackeray's acerbic tone, aided largely by some sterling Brit actors in smaller roles. Bob Hoskins, Tony Maudsley, Eileen Atkins, James Purefoy, Gabriel Byrne, Jonathon Rhys Meyers, and Rhys Ifans surround and support Ms. Witherspoon as she launches into Serious Work, having carried such smaller charmers as the Legally Blonde series. As long as she's doing the surface satire - and as long as Nair and the screenplay avoid any sentiment - the film moves along interestingly enough, though at a sometimes glacial pace. But it stops in its tracks and turns mushy when love's involved, in a way that Thackeray never does.
The other spots where the going gets rough occur when the action moves to Ms. Nair's native India and the satire goes utterly dead in the water. While the story stays in England, either London or the country, the settings and mores smack nicely of authenticity and careful research. Elsewhere, it looks like a Hollywood (or Bollywood) production.
Having said that, I'd have to recommend this film to anyone interested in movies that take risks, aspiring to something more than the average. It's often visually stunning, the musical score is sophisticated and pointed (lyrics by Byron and Tennyson!), and the wit (Thackerayan and otherwise) often bubbles to the surface pleasingly. It rarely plays down to the audience, or dumbs down the material. The visual detail of the production design frequently counterpoints or reinforces the theme, as when peacocks strut about Vauxhall or a painting of Becky's mother is titled "Virtue Betrayed."
Ms. Nair at times makes us admire and even root for Becky, trying to update the self-serving heroine as a contemporary self-made woman. Though she mires herself in various flatterings and betrayals, she never quite lets go of her fundamental honesty, or candor, perhaps. In the society she moves in, that quality alone separates her from most of the other characters. Goodness seems almost accidental, haphazard, and is often balanced with selfishness or irresponsibility. Children are pawns in the quest for money or sex. Friends and relations turn on each other. Becky's first loyalty is to herself, certainly, but she is also capable of selfless acts to those who have done right by her and of displaying her vulnerability when the snobs close ranks to block her "mountaineering" efforts.
In short, Thackeray and Nair have given us a telling critique of the cost of "making it" in a society where money and status continually trump traditional values, one that seems uncomfortably familiar nearly two centuries later. Rated "PG-13" for some very poor reasons, the movie will scarcely appeal to teens in any case. Most adults will likely find it slow going too. Still, if they shy away from it, they'll miss a potentially good bet.