Wednesday, September 29, 2004

Vanity Fair

* ¾ (out of four)
Seen 29 September 2004 at Loews Harvard Square #4 (first-run)

Something is wrong here. How can such a brightly colored film with a fine cast and enough soap in the story to clean every grimy extra until they shine... Well, how can it be so dull?

Part of the problem is that there is a lot of story to be compressed into a movie. The original novel is about 900 pages long; the movie itself is about 140, which means each minute must cover six or seven pages. Clearly, something needs to be left out, but the filmmakers don't exactly cut with surgical precision. Perhaps the most peculiar choice, whether made in the screenplay or editing room, is when William Dobson (Rhys Ifans) receives a letter in India and says he must go back to England... and then isn't seen again until after a "12 years later" caption. It's not the only storyline to lead into a blind alley, although other situations spring up out of nowhere to compensate.

Even setting that sort of mess aside, though, this movie's got problems. The biggest is the way lead character Becky Sharp is portrayed. I love Reese Witherspoon, but she doesn't seem to be given much direction from Mira Nair on how to portray this character. She's too self-aware to be an ingenue, but even as she's given some good lines as a scheming social climber, the character doesn't seem to be much good at it. Her climb upward isn't as relentless as someone with her obvious intellect should be capable of, and we mostly linger on her failings. I found myself more interested in the downward path of her friend Amelia Sedley (Romola Garai), but she often disappears for long stretches.

There are numerous other issues. The casting of the movie gives us a lot of similar-looking characters, and I don't know whether it's an issue with the source material or the screenplay, but there are numerous points when it seems like characters could avoid a lot of trouble by speaking up when it would behoove them to do so. Sure, societal norms were different two hundred years ago, but it's the job of the movie to make that feel natural. Instead, it just feels arbitrary.

Visually, Ms. Nair does some nice work; I like Reese Witherspoon's bright red costumes (the extra weight from her pregnancy looks good on her); the smart military uniforms, though they contribute to the characters looking the same; and the unflinching look at the period's social stratification. Her visual skill doesn't absolve her of for where her storytelling lacks here.

A Vanity Fair movie just may not be a great idea in this day and age - the other versions on the IMDB indicate that the previous theatrical adaptation starred Myrna Loy, while the more recent versions have been TV mini-series, which seems like a better medium for the material - a recent 1998 version was over twice as long, for example, and it would be possible to insert natural breaks into this episodic story. Seventy years ago, it was more acceptable to make much more drastic cuts; today, there's more interest in a faithful adaptation, but not necessarily the time for it.

No comments: