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Brave Old World

"Vanity Fair" looks into the arrogant heart of the 19th century.


The centerpiece in this feast of wheelers and dealers is Becky Sharp. Reese Witherspoon plays her chin up and eyes down, a princess trapped in the title of a governess, always on the lookout for her next step up the ladder. And she doesn't mind stepping on someone's fingers to reach it. "I thought she was a social climber," a friend's mother notes in a prime example of the movie's proficient use of dialogue, "but I didn't know she was a mountaineer."

Eyes narrowing and nostrils flaring, Becky is a graduation with honors from the bratty high-schooler Witherspoon played in "Election." Following her departure from boarding school, she makes quick bids in the social game: almost snagging the brother of her best friend, insinuating herself with a wealthy family of pseudo-aristocrats, marrying their card-playing scion and scandalizing herself with visits by a depraved Marquess.

In taking on a work of great literature, especially one of this size and scope, Nair holds things together surprisingly well. She directed the exquisitely beautiful Indian film "Monsoon Wedding," and has arranged another superb backdrop for "Vanity Fair," using lots of natural light and sumptuous color. Details are usually carefully observed (or carefully faked, but thoughtful nonetheless), like the men's hairstyles, so old-fashioned as to seem ultramodern.

The genius of the film's period sets is that they are not relentlessly beautiful, as they are (wonderfully) in Martin Scorsese's "The Age of Innocence" (1993). In "Vanity Fair," everything is a little rough around the edges. The rich old women wear too much makeup and scratch their heads like flea-bitten dogs when the wigs come off. There are a few design problems. As a friend pointed out during a recent screening, in flitting between galas and wars these rosy-cheeked ladies and gents evidently forgot their hats. But mostly we are absorbed into the time and glad we weren't born then.

The main strength of the film is in managing, as Thackeray did so well, to scrutinize all these people as they glide into each other's lives like dancers at a ball. "Vanity Fair" spreads out its dubious characters like a deck of the merchant class' most wanted, from the dashingly empty-headed Captain Osborne (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers) to the wickedly irresistible Marquess of Steyne (Gabriel Byrne), pronounced Stain, with an accent on every letter.

Nair overcondenses the last act; its faulty pacing rings the end like a broken bell. This is a work in which the parts are often better than the whole. Luckily, Wither-spoon's Becky is enough of an impertinent lightening rod to hold our attention. Those who haven't read the book might be surprised at how funny her material is. Nair smartly uses Thackeray's satire and sarcasm as the driving force. Every other word from Becky is a dart thrown just too fast for her victims to catch. Were she cast on "The Real World," she'd quickly be labeled the back-stabbing 'ho. Yet from the audience's point of view, she's a very likeable, sinned-against figure struggling against unfortunate circumstances. She's too sympathetic to have come from Thackeray, who subtitled his book "A Novel without a Hero." Nair wants us to root for her. She'd be any modern girl's hero. *** S

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