by Cathleen Myers
The new BBC miniseries adaptation of William Makepiece Thackeray’s satirical silver fork novel Vanity Fair goes out of its way to remind us that the novel was one of the sources of Gone with the Wind (though, for the record, author Margaret Mitchell stoutly denied it!). Written by Andrew Davies, screen writer of the brilliant 1995 Pride & Prejudice miniseries, and directed by Marc Munden, this version also goes out of its way to make sure we notice how much the heroine Becky Sharp (Natasha Little) and "hero" Captain Rawdon Crawley (Nathaniel Parker) resemble Scarlett O’Hara and Cap’n Rhett Butler. Hair & makeup designer Christine Walmesley-Cotham occasionally gives Becky a Vivien Leigh-like hairstyle (especially when en lingerie), while Rawdon sports a Clarkie mustache – hardly a la mode in the English Regency! Natasha Little flirts so beautifully and is such a beguiling vixen as Becky we half-expect her to exclaim,"Fiddle Dee Dee!" (The only thing Ms. Walmesley-Cotham misses are the green color-eye contact lenses! Becky, like Scarlett, has green eyes!). And when Crawley finally walks out on Becky (who realizes too late that she cares for him), we half-expect him to say, "Frankly, my dear....." Davies resists the temptation.
Vanity Fair is the winner of PEERS’ annual Barry Lyndon Award for the year’s prettiest historical movie with one of the most trivial plots. Of course, you’ll want to rent it. It’s a gorgeous production with the dazzling sets and costumes one expects from a big budget BBC historical. The gentlemen’s military uniforms are striking, the civilian costumes are elegant, and Becky’s colorful wardrobe of Regency and post-Regency ballgowns, evening gowns, redingotes, walking dresses, Court gowns, etc., are simply To Die For. Given the beauty of the production, there are a couple of serious disappointments. There is almost no period music, even in the Duchess of Richmond’s Ball sequence, and the series’ jarringly modern score often destroys the period atmosphere. The dance sequences are not authentic, either: No one is doing steps during the quadrille sequence (danced to raucous modern music), the waltz is danced Victorian style to wholly inappropriate pseudo-Strauss music, and the country dance seems to have been invented for the film. Considering the easy availability of Regency dance manuals, all this is inexcusable. Still, there’s plenty of eye candy in this miniseries. The production earns extra kudos for filming so many of the scenes on location, including the suspenseful Battle of Waterloo episodes (suspenseful, even though we already know who wins!).
The problem with screen adaptations of Thackeray’s novels (and Barry Lyndon is another excellent example) is that his stories don’t translate well to either the big screen or the small screen. The interest in the novel is neither in the plot nor in the characters (whom Thackeray himself calls "puppets") but in the ironic narration. Plotting was never Thackeray’s strong point, as he himself admitted. Unfortunately, very little of Thackeray’s ironic wit is captured in this adaptation.
Still, it’s a very pretty puppet show. There is a certain fascination in Becky Sharp’s rise from penniless governess to the temporary Queen of High Society, using nothing but her beauty, charm and Machiavellian cunning. The first half of this BBC series moves along nicely and, on the whole, viewer will find the uncut rental version of the miniseries much more enjoyable than the recent A&E broadcast! Thanks to the mind-boggling frequency of A&E’s commercial breaks, the gaping holes in Thackeray’s plot became more apparent to even the casual viewer.
Andrew Davies does his best to transform Thackeray’s puppets into 3-dimensional characters but it just doesn’t work. Since neither Davies nor Munden can resist coarse attempts at humor (or fat jokes) the characters seem more caricatured than ever. We don’t believe Davies’ attempts to inject them with humanity: Does anyone really believe Sir Pitt Crawley cares about Becky or that Jos Sedley (Jeremy Swift) is basically a decent, caring guy? I think we’re supposed to care for sweet Amelia Sedley (Francis Grey) the same way we care about Olivia de Havilland’s Melanie but we don’t. While Melanie had courage and dignity, Amelia’s sweetness and naiveté are at first cloying and in the end annoying here. When her long-suffering admirer Colonel Dobbin (Philip Glenister) utters his cruel but true speech (his realization that she is not worth his 10 years of devotion), the viewer feels only relief that someone finally told the whiny bitch off. I think we were supposed to be touched. What we really want him to say is "Frankly, my dear...."
Davies also tries to soften Becky’s character, turning her one noble gesture at the end into an act of redemption and even suggesting a happy ending for her with rich nice-guy Jos, who doesn’t seem to mind that she’s an adventuress. Perhaps the ending was supposed to be bittersweet. It merely seems abrupt. Curiously, the only real villain in the entire piece is the Marquis of Steyne (Gerard Murphy), who is more repulsive than evil. Where’s Christopher Lee when you need him?
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