Mira Nair’s Vanity Fair Blunts Becky’s Sharp Tongue

Mira Nair’s Vanity Fair , from a screenplay by Mathew Faulk, Mark Skeet and Julian Fellowes, based on the novel by William Makepeace Thackeray (1811-1863), contrives to become a less than absorbing adaptation of Thackeray’s sprawling but sharp-witted classic. Ms. Nair-she of the tumultuous India-based canvases of Salaam Bombay (1988) and Monsoon Wedding (2001)-has expanded a few of Thackeray’s random references to his Anglo-Indian background as an infant into a full-blown intercontinental parable of sensuality and sexuality in the service of social ambition.

Though Becky Sharp’s anti heroine in Thackeray’s self-professed novel without a hero is one of the most familiar figures in world literature, she has remained an elusive quarry on-screen. Becky’s last incarnation in a Hollywood movie was Miriam Hopkins’ sassy yet distractingly mannered portrait in Rouben Mamoulian’s Becky Sharp (1935), Hollywood’s first full-length Technicolor (three-color) feature film. That was almost 70 years ago. I never saw a 1932 version of Vanity Fair with a pre-stellar Myrna Loy as Becky Sharp. Nor have I seen a 1923 silent-film version, though I did see a tantalizing clip of the legendary Minnie Madden Fiske playing Becky Sharp at a lecture given in the 60′s by Lee Strasberg, who spoke glowingly of Mrs. Fiske’s surpassing subtlety as an actress.

Subtlety, unfortunately, is in short supply in Ms. Nair’s frequently lavish spectacle. The usually spicier Reese Witherspoon has been saddled by Ms. Nair and her screenwriters with a sweet and sentimentalized Becky who’s much less astringent than either Thackeray’s character or Ms. Witherspoon’s own more satisfyingly satirical approximation of Becky as the ambitious Tracy Flick in Alexander Payne’s Election (1999).

Still, I can’t criticize Ms. Nair and her collaborators too harshly for their choices-rendering a Victorian classic into an opening-week attraction for an infantile mass audience with little stomach for adult social criticism. This is to say that Ms. Nair and her associates had fewer opportunities to have fun with their characters than Thackeray did from inside the horse’s mouth. He fully understood, as does Ms. Nair, that there’s always something comically obscene about the surging pretentiousness of the nouveau riche in all ages, including our own ( vide the recent tech-stock bubble). In Thackeray’s ever-scheming, ever-calculating cosmos, Becky Sharp doesn’t function on a higher moral plane than that of her unyielding social adversaries; on occasion, she can be as cruel and snobbish as the worst of them. Hence, I can’t imagine a commercially viable movie that could be remotely “faithful” to Thackeray’s expansive critique of the Victorian Gilded Age.

How much beside the point, therefore, is the following comment related to The New York Times ‘ Caryn James (in the Aug. 29, 2004, issue) by the film’s major screenwriter, Julian Fellowes: “She was born to no future and decided to change her fate. This business of thinking, ‘I’m going to deal myself a better hand’-you can’t write that for a 21st-century audience and make it sympathetic.”

You can if you choose to leave in all of Becky’s unpleasant actions in the book, and also refer to her by her more formal first name of Rebecca, as often as Thackeray does. Instead, Ms. Nair and Mr. Fellowes have tacked on a waif-like childhood prologue for Becky in which, as the daughter of her impecunious painter father, Francis Sharp (Roger Lloyd Pack), she haggles winningly with the romantically presented Gabriel Byrne, the Marquess of Steyne, over the price of one of her father’s paintings.

When we next encounter Becky, we see her leaving Miss Pinkerton’s Academy at Chiswick, where she’s been employed to teach French to well-born young ladies; the most pertinent one for our purposes is Miss Amelia Sedley (Romola Garai). The young lady’s family coach has been dispatched to fetch Amelia and her temporary house guest, Becky Sharp, to the Sedley home. Thackeray had a great deal of fun with Amelia, who is always so overwrought that she can hardly bear to leave all her school friends behind. The Amelia of Ms. Nair and Mr. Fellowes is just, well, nice and sincere. This makes Becky look extra spunky as she brazenly tosses out of the coach window a parting gift from the school-Dr. Johnson’s Dictionary -that lands at the feet of Miss Pinkerton (Ruth Sheen) herself, much to Amelia’s consternation. In these scenes, the movie is unusually faithful to the book.

But with Becky’s arrival at the Sedley manse, we are thrust into a Masterpiece Theatre of suitors, snobs, bores, eccentrics and gargoyles of all ages and both sexes. Rival claimants for Amelia’s hand emerge very quickly in the persons of two military officers about to go off to the historic Battle of Waterloo. After the Society Ball in Brussels, the self-adoringly lecherous George Osborne (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers) marries Amelia less out of love than out of a desire to spite his rich merchant father-Mr. Osborne the elder (Jim Broadbent) wanted George to marry someone much wealthier than Amelia. Meanwhile, the infinitely more honorable William Dobbin (Rhys Ifans) suffers interminably from his unrequited passion for Amelia. William finally goes on a spiritual pilgrimage to India to forget Amelia after she continues to spurn him even after her husband has died on the Waterloo battlefield, but his suffering becomes so outlandishly palpable that it evoked laughter in the screening room.

For her part, Becky Sharp never fails to seize any opportunity for advancement. After insinuating herself into a more dominant role in the affairs of the household and her coarse employer, Sir Pitt Crawley (Bob Hoskins), Becky’s eye falls on Sir Pitt’s younger son, Rawdon Crawley (James Purefoy), a swashbuckling dragoon with a costly gambling habit, whom she easily seduces into marriage. All this after Rawdon’s aunt, Sir Pitt’s humorously sharp-witted sister, Miss Matilda Crawden (Eileen Atkins), has befriended the quick-witted Becky and taken her to London as a companion. But when Matilda realizes that Becky has snatched her beloved nephew from right under her nose, she disowns Rawdon and expels Becky from her house.

When Becky finds herself in financial difficulties because of Rawdon’s gambling losses as well as his other profligate behavior, she turns for assistance to the susceptible Marquess of Steyne, who pays off her debts and offers her an entrée to the Very High Society that has steadfastly-almost religiously-rejected her because of her low birth. Of course, Steyne demands sexual favors in return, and though Becky resists his advances to retain her marital honor, Rawdon catches her in a compromising position. After thrashing the marquess, Rawdon gives his wife a tongue-lashing before leaving her forever.

There are, in Thackeray’s novel, enough hootchy-kootchy elements to justify Ms. Nair’s Kama Sutra –like extravaganzas. But in an 820-page novel, there’s also enough time to establish all the psychosocial coordinates for the sexual intrigues, whereas in a two-and-a-half-hour movie, the plot has to be thinned out and speeded up-enough, at least, for the filmmakers to create some semblance of narrative cohesion for the ending.

In both the book and the film, Becky is given the decisive task of putting Amelia out of her self-imposed misery by enshrining the memory of her late, worthless husband, George Osborne, at the expense of William Dobbin, the man who truly loves her despite all her ill-advised rebuffs. When Becky shows Amelia a lust-filled letter she received from George on the night before his death at Waterloo, Amelia is finally liberated from her not-so-magnificent obsession with George and rushes into Dobbin’s sheltering arms.

Though Ms. Nair’s Becky is still shunned by many of the more respectable families in Britain, she is redeemed and rewarded after a fashion with a luxurious voyage to India, where she is seen triumphantly perched on an elephant-an experience she only dreamed of in the book. Still, one can forgive Ms. Nair for exploiting what was a dream in her literary source for a heartwarming image of the movie heroine’s life in the ascendant.

Margaret Mitchell denied all her life that Scarlett O’Hara was based on Becky Sharp, and Melanie Hamilton on Amelia Osborne. Yet there’s a tantalizing scene in Gone with the Wind in which a jealous Scarlett overhears with some puzzlement Melanie telling Ashley Wilkes that Mr. Dickens is more of a gentleman with women than Mr. Thackeray. And for Thackeray’s Waterloo, there is Mitchell’s Gettysburg. Obviously, Scarlett has come over much better on-screen, in her transcendent green-eyed incarnation by the ineffable Vivien Leigh, than Becky Sharp. Perhaps this may be accounted for by the differences between Mitchell’s romantic popular fiction and Thackeray’s more ironic and more skeptical literature-as far as the ever-hopeful moviegoing masses go, one always trumps the other.

Garden-Variety Malaise

Zach Braff’s Garden State , from his own screenplay, seems already to have struck a nerve among young moviegoers with histories of parentally and psychiatrically imposed mood-and-mind-altering anti-depressant drugs. As it happens, the movie’s protagonist, Andrew Largeman, played by Mr. Braff (also the writer, director and presumably total auteur of Garden State ), has the fictional misfortune of having his own father, Gideon Largeman (played by Ian Holm), serve as his psychiatrist. As we learn near the end of the movie, a childhood act of impulsive aggression leads to a very serious accident that deprived 9-year-old Andrew of a normal childhood and has becalmed him, in adulthood, in a state of virtual catatonia. But before this fateful piece of information is supplied, Andrew’s remarkable and often grotesquely quiescent reactions to the most outrageous provocations seem designed merely for the amusement of the audience. The aftereffect is often one of bewilderment: What’s the problem?

After nine years of pursuing a marginal acting career in Los Angeles, Andrew is summoned back to New Jersey by his distraught father, Gideon, who tells him via cell phone that Andrew’s mother has drowned in her bathtub. Again, Andrew’s total nonreaction to the news is more strange than funny. I must confess, at this point, I feared the worst in the way of a feature-length zombie movie full of drugs and hallucinatory visions, so prevalent in today’s youth-going-to-hell movies.

But very quickly I was reassured by the remarkably persistent gentleness and sweetness of the proceedings, particularly when Andrew encounters Sam (Natalie Portman) at the local clinic, launching a magical romance between two wounded and vulnerable young people without an ounce of self-pity between them. Andrew is also reunited with many of his high-school friends, almost all of whom have gotten nowhere in their lives. In this respect, Garden State makes Richard Linklater’s Slacker (1991) look like a cavalcade of success stories. Yet even when the coke and grass are trotted out, and Andrew’s perceptions become accelerated in an otherwise harmless game of post office that ends up more kiss-kiss than bang-bang, the participants in the drug-dazed revels never cross over into outright lewdness. After all, these people have to keep living with each other, however young they are.

Andrew arrives late at the funeral and feels guilty when he realizes he cannot shed a tear over his mother’s demise. Shades of Hamlet and Yorick: Mark (Peter Sarsgaard), Zach’s high-school buddy, pops up as the gravedigger at his mother’s funeral and helps ease Zach’s way into his old circles.

The happy ending is somewhat conventional in comparison to all the unusual experiences that have preceded it. Still, there’s no way any viewer could fail to be depressed if Andrew and Sam didn’t make it as a for-keeps couple. Mr. Braff, Ms. Portman, Mr. Sarsgaard and Mr. Holm never strike a false note as a remarkably coherent acting ensemble, and it is good to see Ron Leibman again in the small role of Doctor Cohen, a perceptively whimsical neurologist who is unfazed by Andrew’s unnatural nonchalance.

Korea’s Korean War

Kang Je-gyu’s Tae Guk Gi (The Brotherhood of War) , from his own screenplay, is reportedly the highest-grossing film of all time in South Korea, even exceeding the local take from Titanic -and one can see why, since much of its 140-minute running time is devoted to the most harrowing footage I have ever seen: hand-to-hand and throat-to-throat combat between rival hordes of Korean soldiers, North and South, Communist and anti-Communist, in the so-called forgotten war that raged on the Korean Peninsula between 1950 and 1953.

The war may have been forgotten here in America, but apparently not in North and South Korea, where its fratricidal wounds have still not healed. Republicans back then derided it as “Truman’s war” and blamed him for not unleashing Gen. Douglas MacArthur on the Red Chinese. The Chinese intervened late in the action to bloody the nose of our up-to-then victorious armies, both American and South Korean. Truman decided then, as did John F. Kennedy during the Cuban missile crisis, that the risk of World War III outweighed the anguished yelps of Republican hawks. Thank God George W. Bush was not the President on either occasion.

I have seen several interesting films on the Korean War, among them Samuel Fuller’s The Steel Helmet (1951) and Anthony Mann’s Men in War (1957), but in neither of them was the South Korean Army significantly involved. Tae Guk Gi returns the compliment by virtually ignoring the American armed forces, except for some jet fighters strafing the North Koreans and the Chinese on behalf of the South Koreans.

The story centers on two brothers, Jang Dong-gun (Lee Jin-tae) and Lin Jin-seok (Won Bin), who are dragged into the South Korean Army against their wishes when the North invades the South. This sibling saga, full of noble sacrifices and melodramatic misunderstandings, seems increasingly incongruous in a brutal war fueled by rival ideologies only dimly understood by the combatants on both sides. This is not a “patriotic” film in the normal sense of the word, but a somewhat cynical view of one people long persecuted by their neighbors becoming bitterly divided by the global conflicts between outside powers beyond their control, leaving them compelled to kill each other in the process. The film is thus worth seeing for its sheer otherness at a time when Americans are forced to look increasingly at the outside world for new information.