The blunting of Becky Sharp

The blunting of Becky Sharp

Making a screen version of Vanity Fair is the director’s equivalent of invading Russia; however confident you may feel in your powers, remember the land you tread over is littered with the dead careers of producers, actors and financial backers from campaigns past. So Mira Nair’s fans must have hoped she had good counsel before embarking on her first major Hollywood production, perhaps the type of lackey who used to whisper “remember you are just a man” in the ears of all-conquering Roman generals.

As many as a dozen big screen attempts have been made on William Thackeray’s masterpiece, and though the 1935 effort Becky Sharp received most plaudits, it was mainly for its first use of Technicolor (and it killed its director). Now an Indian filmmaker and American company have taken the English novel and given it a sub-continental twist, though this is not too strange considering that Mr Thackeray himself grew up in Calcutta. And, as we are constantly told, whenever some Asian twist is given to Austen or Shakespeare, Indians understand the importance of a good marriage (as if British people merely pull the name of their spouse out of a National Lotterystyle machine).

For those not familiar with the novel, here is a brief outline. Having grown up poor, Becky Sharp is determined to not stay that way, and having gained a job as governess to a down-atheel lord (Pitt Crawley) and become the friend of his rich sister, she marries the lord’s son Rowson. This horrifies the romantic old aunt, who loves to spout about the wonders of an illsuited union, but does not like it in real life, and especially not in her family. The couple are cut off financially, a situation not helped by his reckless gambling. Meanwhile her less worldly friend Amelia falls in love with Captain George Osborne, the son of a ruthless nouveau riche merchant, a man who orders Osborne Jnr to drop his fiancée the moment her family’s money runs out. While her betrothed could not care less about her well-being, Amelia is doted over by William Dobbin, but between Dobbin – what women call a “sweetie”– and Osborne, a total cad, she naturally goes for the latter. And this is just a mini-synopsis – to provide even the gist of the 700-page epic would leave this review precious little room for criticism, so one can see how difficult a task Ms Nair has.

She is helped, at least, by a strong cast – apart from Reese Witherspoon in the lead role, the line-up includes Gabriel Byrne as the sinister Marquess of Steyne, Becky’s not entirely altruistic beneficiary when the money runs out; Rhys Ifans as Dobbin; Jonathan Rhys Meyers as his comrade and love rival as well as Romola Garai, Bob Hoskins and Jim Broadbent. But even with this veritable army of solid actors, the feature film can compete little with a TVdrama such as that aired by the BBC in 1998. The scripts and storyline are shaved down to the barest, and the last portion of the film is speeded up as if the makers were running out of tape. The Americanised view of London Town (filmed, very obviously, in Bath) is irritating, as are the time-consuming Indian inserts in a film where time is of the essence, namely Becky’s Bollywood dance – it is about as historical and contextual as Jesus Christ Superstar .

And where Thackeray newcomers will be baffled by the ensemble, his fans may be horrified at how nice the lead is. Cinema Becky is far less calculating and mercenary than her print ancestor; in fact she has gone through a moral bleaching via Scarlett O’Hara, herself modelled on Sharp and no doubt the inspiration for 21st century Becky. Here we see her give up a seat for Amelia when they escape Brussels, and weep when her son is sent off to boarding school at the behest of Steyne. As for their romantic situation, her husband appears devastated when the Marquess barely gets further than the sort of drunken lunge that might get one a mild telling-off after an office party. Still, perhaps it will be a relief for those fearing graphic Channel 4-style scenes between the two.

She may still say: “Revenge may be wicked, but it’s perfectly natural,” but she barely does enough to warrant two Hail Marys at the confessional.

I fear this may be a trend: last year, male uber-chauvinist Alfie, the man who referred to his female conquests as “it”, was neutered into a caring guy who just wanted to be loved. Perhaps we should now expect a slurring Mr Hyde who makes the odd faux pas and falls asleep on the train.

This article was published at The Catholic Herald

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