Ah, to be young, bright, and scheming in 19th century Britain! According to Mira Nair’s Vanity Fair, adapted from William Makepeace Thackery’s lengthy novel, Becky Sharp (Reese Witherspoon) has everything going for her, in particular the fact that she’s the star of this lightweight, episodic social-climbing adventure. To her way of thinking, such trials—public humiliation, personal frustration, sexual exploitation—are minor compared to the goal she has in mind, ascension to the hoity-toity class, where, she imagines, she will at last be content.
That this happy ending is signified by Becky’s grand entrance into “India,” a mythical-seeming and mysterious place, where she wears fine silks and rides an elephant, is not a little ironic, considering the film’s attention to the colonialist backdrop of her journey. But Becky is rather oblivious to such matters, as her focus is relentless, if not precisely admirable. That said, the movie doesn’t judge her, exactly. She’s a product of her moment, driven by her desires and shaped by her culture. Instead, the film offers up an outline of Becky’s activities: she rides along the surface of “history,” cajoling her way to her desired end. While the film might have some ideas about her relationship to British incursions and racist or misogynist customs, Becky doesn’t learn a lesson as figure out exactly how to wheedle.
Born into relative underclassness, Becky soberly observes her struggling London artist father’s efforts to make ends meet; the child goes so far as to step in during a sale, insisting that the buyer, the definitively snooty Marquess of Steyne (Gabriel Byrne), pay more because it’s a portrait of her dear mother, a French chorus girl who died during childbirth. He’s impressed with her nerve; she admires his fine coat. With that encounter, it appears, Becky’s ambition is determined, and she pursues her class clambering with a vengeance.
This includes using her connections—namely her best friend at Miss Pinkerton’s Academy at Chiswick, the fretful Amelia Sedley (Romola Garai)—to gain access to potentially advantageous situations. Just so, when her official education ends, and Becky cannot fall back on a family title or fortune (either being an acceptable means to a marriage that will impart the other), she first tries to win over Amelia’s naïve, eager-to-please brother Joseph (Tony Maudsley), in part by feigning an affection for his chief interest, India.
When her show of courage—eating a superhot curry pepper while observed by the skeptical server Biju (Paul Bazely)—fails to earn her a wedding ring, Becky takes a position as a governess, for Sir Pitt Crawley (Bob Hoskins), whose rural Hampshire estate is in dire need of her exacting attentions; within months, the household is cleaned up, his daughters learn to speak French, his son Rawdon (James Purefoy) falls in love with her, and his rich spinster Aunt Matilda (Dame Eileen Atkins) takes her back to London as witty companion.
Becky plays this last role especially well, joking pointedly about Sir Pitt’s less refined relatives and insinuating herself into Matilda’s good graces. That is, until she falls in love, not with a wealthy or established fellow, but with the dashing gambler Rawdon. Their subsequent marriage looks to the family as if Becky is conniving: though Rawdon himself isn’t rich, his aunt certainly is, and she cuts Rawdon out of her will entirely. As he’s a respected major in the British military, Becky again sets to charming and pushing her way into that certain social class where she isn’t welcome, and again, she only partly succeeds. She reunites with Amelia, now married to her own bad idea, George Osborne (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), an utter snob whose interest in his anxious wife is only ignited when his father (Jim Broadbent) loses his small fortune and the son is left with nothing but the title that came with Amelia.
As even this cursory list of plot points suggests, Becky’s tale is one of perpetual movement, with a limited framework. And during all her elaborate social circling, she remains fixed on her own ambition, even when it obviously hurts others. In the case of Amelia’s unhappiness, Becky doesn’t reveal what she knows about the man who dotes on her, the somber Major Dobbin (Rhys Ifans), or the fact that George is unfaithful (he’s so crass as to proposition the newly married Becky, whom he has previously rejected as an upstart). In the case of her own marriage, Becky is prone to gutting her way through every difficult social battlefield (singing for ladies who don’t like her, taking money from a rich neighbor who will expect a return on his investment), ignoring Rawdon’s mostly muted objections. He yearns for their early days of bliss and rollicking, and resents her persistent climbing. That said, by the time he starts skulking in doorways, nursing his drink and looking miserable, you’re likely to be as irritated with him as she is.
Or rather, as she might have been, had the movie granted Becky any “sharpness.” Though the details of her finagling are clear enough—indeed, laid out in tedious detail, without context—Becky’s emotional excursions and remain obscure. The film paints her as an ambitious, essentially good-hearted girl, less ruthless than in the novel and more admirable. Whether this is a function of her resituation in a post-feminist-ish text, or the filmmaker’s professed affection for Becky, in particular her resistance to social conventions. But Becky’s desire for the rewards attached to such conventions, even if her means are wily, suggests that she is more conservative than rebellious.
Becky’s pièce de résistance, or one of them, anyway, is a literal and tremendous performance, at Steyne’s devious behest, for the King. As she dances, surrounded by writing, exotic “Indian” bodies, she wears garish makeup and her own sort of “Indian” costume. With this affront to social norms, her reputation seems ruined (though other scandals follow), a point that seems frankly trivial compared to larger historical events, say, Napoleon’s invasion of Europe, his escape from Elba, and the Battle of Waterloo.
Then again, “history” is hardly the subject of Vanity Fair, which attends instead—when it’s not marching through bits of plot—to the ways that “facts” are shaped to accommodate the images and needs of those writing it. Becky struggles to be able to ignore history and live well in her present. And by film’s end, her saga looks rather flat.