Sharpe Satire, Soft Ending

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Review of 'Vanity Fair', director Mira Nair

Adaptations of classic novels - in this case Thackeray's novel of 1848 - run the risk of being too faithful to the original. Intelligent reworking in the visual medium of film can often work better - however much the purists complain.

How does this film version directed by Mira Nair, who made Salaam Bombay, Mississippi Masala and Monsoon Wedding, shape up? The film starts brilliantly - young Becky Sharpe is playing with puppets in her father's art studio, when Lord Steyne walks in to buy the portrait of a beautiful young woman, who is her dead mother. You won't find this scene in the novel but it brings out what is at the heart of the novel: women bought and sold to satisfy the vanity of a brutally class-ridden society.

The fates of Becky and that of her schoolfriend Amelia are plotted against a background of social infighting, as aristocratic families ruthlessly attempt to hold on to privilege and bourgeois families ruthlessly attempt to climb socially.

Becky is both victim and manipulator. Forced to become a governess, she uses her brains and beauty to wed the dashing but penniless aristocratic Captain Rawdon Crawley. But his rich aunt's liberal tolerance towards Becky proves skin deep the moment the secret marriage is revealed. He is cut out of her will and the couple have to exploit the skill of living well on nothing at all (which involves exploiting the tradesmen and keeping one step ahead of the bailiff).

The director, Mira Nair, is fascinated by the Indian and colonial side to the novel. Becky's first admirer is Amelia's brother, Jos, who has made his fortune in India. The father of Amelia's intended, George, attempts to marry him off to the mixed race heiress Miss Swartz, from the West Indies, after refusing to save Amelia's father from bankruptcy. George refuses the sordid bargain (more out of racism than principle) and then marries Amelia (more out of rebellion against his father than love).

This is no chocolate box presentation of English society. Nothing is spared in this sharply critical presentation of social and sexual corruption in early 19th century England on the eve of the battle of Waterloo. Not even Waterloo is shown in a flattering light. George dies on the battlefield, a hero to Amelia, who is ignorant about his attempted seduction of Becky at the glittering aristocratic ball the night before. And the aristocrats who have scorned the adventuress are so scared by the rumour of Napoleon's victory they are prepared to give Becky virtually anything to secure their flight.

I wish I could say that the rest of the film is as good after Waterloo as it is before. But in my view it rapidly goes downhill. The Lord Steyne we have seen in the opening scene of the film is a lot less nasty than his entrapment of Becky suggests. Becky, too, is softened. Greed, snobbery and corruption fade into the background as motivation for the characters. It's more that they are all caught up in a tragedy of looking for love. Becky is just a victim - no longer a manipulator by the end of the film. And the Indian element becomes a preposterous bit of costume drama.

As long as you can put up with the last third of the movie, there's lots to get out of this version of one of the sharpest of 19th century novels.