Blonde ambition

Reese Witherspoon claws her way to the top in 'Vanity Fair'

By , Film critic of The Christian Science Monitor

In today's multicultural movie world, interesting results can ensue when a filmmaker from one geographical region tells a story set in a very different one. Audiences responded enthusiastically, for instance, when Taiwanese-American director Ang Lee adapted Jane Austen's novel "Sense and Sensibility," a thoroughly English tale.

The new screen version of "Vanity Fair," by William Makepeace Thackeray, comes from Mira Nair, the Indian-born director of films such as "Salaam Bombay!" and "Monsoon Wedding," which delve into issues of class and caste.

Showing plenty of box-office savvy, Ms. Nair has chosen Reese Witherspoon to play Becky Sharp, drawing on Ms. Witherspoon's image from earlier films - "Election," "Legally Blonde" - to enhance her portrayal of a 19th-century woman driven by desires for money and security. Becky's quest for material comfort turns her first into a governess, then a social climber, and then what another character calls a social "mountaineer."

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Also on hand are English actors Romola Garai and Bob Hoskins as Becky's best friend and employer, respectively; Irish star Gabriel Byrne as a self-serving benefactor; and Welsh actor Rhys Ifans as an unrequited lover.

What's missing from this "Vanity Fair" is the sense of plucky, anything-goes adventurousness that abounds in Thackeray's novel. Nair plays it very safe with this project, making it colorful and energetic while serving up all the clichés about Englishness that fans of the "heritage" genre expect.

She does show real awareness of Britain's historical failings, calling subtle attention to the hardships heedlessly inflicted on lower-class people. But she doesn't linger over their plight, much less explore the large-scale tensions and contradictions that would cause turbulent changes in years to come.

Also absent is the intimacy of her previous picture, "Monsoon Wedding," in ways her most heartfelt to date.

Nor does the screenplay find a real equivalent for Thackeray's sublimely sardonic prose. The first thing I did after seeing "Vanity Fair" was to take another look at Stanley Kubrick's 1975 drama "Barry Lyndon," which surpasses its Thackeray source. Many viewers will enjoy "Vanity Fair" on its own terms, but rent that Kubrick masterpiece if you want to see screen adaptation at its best.

Rated PG-13; contains adult themes.

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