Movie Review


Vanity Fair

Production Company: Focus Features
Director: Mira Nair
Principle: Reese Witherspoon
Rating: PG-13 for sensuality and some nudity

By Gregg Tubbs

(UMCom) -- Many of the great heroines of the screen, from Scarlett O’Hara to Erin Brockovich, owe a debt of gratitude to Rebecca Sharp, who wrote the book on how to use wits and feminine wiles to survive. Actually, it was William Makepeace Thackeray who wrote the book, Vanity Fair (1848), the biting satire of English high society that introduced Becky Sharp, the archetypical survivor and social climber. In the latest incarnation of Vanity Fair, Reese Witherspoon brings Becky to vibrant, if not always laudable, life. But following her odyssey from poverty to prosperity begs the question, is all really fair in love and war? 

Reese Witherspoon brings Becky Sharp to vibrant, if not always laudable, life. © 2004 Focus Features
Set in England during the Napoleonic wars, Vanity Fair boasts all the elements of a classic costume epic, with a large colorful cast, sweeping vistas, romantic intrigue and valiant men engaged in battle. The difference is that Thackeray’s goal was social satire, so these classic ingredients are used to reveal the failings of the society in which he lived – particularly the ruling class and rich gentry. Director Mira Nair (Monsoon Wedding) puts her own stamp on this classic by exploring the confining class structures of old England, possibly reflecting her own experience growing up in India. Thus, social class – escaping it, defying it, defending it and rising above it – becomes an ever-present theme in the film.

Despite its epic backdrop, the story is an intimate one revolving around the lives of two very different women who meet at a girl’s school. Amelia is a student and the daughter of a middle-class businessman. Becky is an orphan left at the school when she was young and now working there as a servant. The girls defy their class differences and strike up a friendship that becomes the window through which we view their world – a world that strictly dictates the expected phases and limits of their lives. The difference between these girls is that while Amelia seems to accept what society dictates, proto-feminist Becky recognizes no such limitations. 

Becky (Reese Witherspoon) literally sells her soul not just to survive, but to rise in stature and comfort. © 2004 Focus Features
The film chronicles the roller coaster fortunes of both women, but it inevitably zeroes in on Becky.  As played by Witherspoon, Becky is still a scheming social climber, but her portrayal is more sympathetic than Thackeray’s novel. Like most women of the day, Becky has few resources to better her status with other than her guile and ability to “marry up.” She uses both to her advantage while trying desperately not to completely sell herself for her success. She finds employment as a governess to a faded noble family, using her intelligence and practicality to make herself indispensable to the pampered, nearly helpless household. But she learns a painful lesson in how firm her class limits are when she marries the family’s son and both are ostracized. The family, who cherished her as head of the household staff, can’t accept her as a member of their own. It’s amusing to note that it was Thackeray who first popularized the term “snob.”

Becky (Reese Witherspoon) is forced to sell her father’s painting of her dead mother to a rich nobleman. © 2004 Focus Features
Becky’s struggles to rise above her impoverished beginning are easy to understand. The plight of the poor, who often have no choice but to bend their principles and avoid sentimentality, is illustrated early on. Struggling to survive, Becky is forced to sell her father’s painting of her dead mother to a rich nobleman. She doesn’t want to, but she admits the final price he offers is simply too high to refuse. It is a great irony that many years later she returns, as a member of the same man’s social circle, to find her mother’s portrait hanging in his parlor. It’s a stirring moment as Becky stares at the painting with a mixture of regret and self-contempt, but also pride. It shows the complex and conflicted nature that makes Becky so much like many of us.
The final question is at what price has Becky gained her new status? Has she literally sold her soul not just to survive, but to rise in stature and comfort? Her success has come at a great price, often paid by those closest to her, including her husband and son. Is all fair in love and war? Has she confused love with opportunity? And has she made war with her heart to satisfy her drive to succeed? Vanity Fair is set in the 19th century, but its ambitious heroine, who struggles with a personal life that sometimes resembles a professional career of today, still has relevance.

Gregg Tubbs is a freelance writer living in Columbia, Md.

This review was developed by, the official online ministry of the United Methodist Church.

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