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'Vanity Fair' By Mira Nair

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    'Vanity Fair' By Mira Nair

    After Salaam Bombay, Mississippi Masala, Monsoon Wedding another gem ' Vanity Fair' from Mira Nair.

    Such a Nice Girl, That Becky Sharp

    Article on director Mira Nair's film Vanity Fair, based on William Makepeace Thackeray's 1848 novel of same name; film stars Reese Witherspoon; screenwriter Julian Fellowes and Nair comment; photo (M)

    Published: August 29, 2004

    WHEN the social rules are unfairly stacked against her, what's a poor girl to do except break a few? That idea is at the heart of Mira Nair's sumptuous, witty new version of "Vanity Fair" (opening Wednesday) with Reese Witherspoon as Becky Sharp, one of literature's great survivors, social climbers and perpetual self-inventors. After all these years, Becky carries with her the aura of her many spiritual daughters: Scarlett O'Hara, Madonna, even Elle Wood, Ms. Witherspoon's smart dumb-blonde character from the "Legally Blonde" comedies. And while "Vanity Fair" remains essentially true to the setting of William Makepeace Thackeray's 1848 novel, it also offers a Becky Sharp for today, a 19th-century heroine who appeals to contemporary attitudes about class, ambition and women fending for themselves.

    This 21st-century perspective was shaped quite deliberately by Ms. Nair, whose films range from the urban grit of "Salaam Bombay" to the colorful feast of "Monsoon Wedding," and by the screenwriter Julian Fellowes, who won an Oscar for his glittering script for "Gosford Park." Their Becky still lives by her wits and her charms, as the one-time governess claws her way up the social ladder, but she is no longer the heartless creature of Thackeray's pages. Here she is viewed as a penniless woman making her way in a rich man's world. What could be more sympathetic to a modern audience?

    As Mr. Fellowes said by telephone: "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 unsympathetic."

    Both he and Ms. Nair, in separate phone conversations, described their Becky as a collaboration between them; take a look back at the novel and you can see how much the film is also a collaboration with Thackeray. Taking some daring, successful risks, the filmmakers extrapolated from the novel, mining it for everything from Thackeray's implicit admiration for his heroine to his interest in India as a British colony, a little-noted theme that the Indian-born Ms. Nair brings to the surface.

    When she came onto the project, Ms. Nair inherited a script more limited than the movie she envisioned. She said that the original screenplay (by Matthew Faulk and Mark Skeet, who receive writing credit along with Mr. Fellowes) "was much more like Madonna, the Material Girl rising; it did not have the democratic swirl of the book, the theme of the empire and colonialism." To rework the script, she suggested Mr. Fellowes, whom she had never met, and they talked through what the film should be. "I told him what my thoughts were about the carnivalesque circus of the milieu of `Vanity Fair,' " she said. "I think of it as a banquet of a novel, an elegant soap opera."

    Capturing the book's great social sprawl both the low-born and the aristocrats, in scenes that range from seedy London to country houses and the Battle of Waterloo is one of the film's great strengths as it gracefully flits among the many characters who crisscross Becky's path. Among them are Amelia Sedley (Romola Garai), Melanie to her Scarlett, good-hearted to the point of being soft-headed. Amelia marries a ne'er-do-well soldier, George Osborne (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers), while Osborne's friend, William Dobbin (Rhys Ifans), remains in long-suffering love with her. And on center stage, Becky marries a handsome gambler shades of Rhett Butler Rawdon Crawley (James Purefoy), the poor son of the aristocrat Sir Pitt Crawley (Bob Hoskins), whose younger children she was hired to teach.

    This may sound like a Masterpiece Theater panorama, and in the gorgeous opening sequence even resembles one, with a montage of a peacock, roses and pearls. (The film looks more expensive than its relatively modest $23 million budget suggests.) But that soon gives way to the shabby reality of the young Becky's life, then to the exuberant, jewel-colored swirl of her rise. Although the story had to be true to the historical details, Ms. Nair said, "In the essence it had to feel modern." She added, "I didn't hire a single person who had ever worked on a period film," and she moved every scene she could outdoors into the light to avoid any hint of stuffy drawing-room drama.

    Creating a contemporary feel for the 19th century wasn't such a leap. It's no coincidence that the most upscale of today's celebrity-obsessed magazines is called Vanity Fair, offering a carnival of the rich and pampered, or that its current cover girl is Ms. Witherspoon, coolly elegant in a pale Ferretti gown and Harry Winston earrings. If Becky were here today she'd be envious.

    "All the characters are driven by the same things we are driven by: they fear obscurity, they fear failure, they need money," Mr. Fellowes said of Thackeray's creations, adding, " `Vanity Fair,' much more than the Dickens novels, reflects the aspirations and the mistakes of our own time," including the downward tumble that the ever-ambitious Becky eventually takes.

    Beyond its wit and range, Mr. Fellowes's sophisticated script also finds an equivalent for Thackeray's playful voice. Thackeray himself didn't exactly make Becky unsympathetic. Instead, his all-knowing, deliciously slippery narrator tells us how society disapproves of her, without ever judging her himself. It's a narrative triumph, and a tricky thing to translate to the screen. The film accomplishes this by putting society's disapproving voice in the mouths of characters we laugh at, and at times laugh with.

    In one of the film's finest invented lines, Amelia's mother observes Becky's flirting and flattery, and dryly says: "I had thought her only a social climber. I see now she is a mountaineer."

    While Becky is decidedly the heroine of the book, subtitled "a novel without a hero," Thackeray is clear-sighted about her faults. She ignores her young son, thinks her husband stupid and uses people mercilessly. The film's Becky is a manipulator, but her flaws have been softened. Her comments can be cutting, but only to those who deserve them. She is dismissive of her son, but it doesn't amount to outright child abuse. And this Becky actually loves Rawdon.

    We even feel sorry for her when, in a scene that is a clear homage to "Gone With the Wind" and that places this Becky in the tradition of the greatest scheming heroine in movies she pleads with Rawdon not to leave her. "In my way I have loved you," the weeping Becky says, at the bottom of a grand staircase that could be Scarlett's. ("I only know that I love you," Scarlett cries.)

    "Then that is your misfortune," says Rawdon. ("That's your misfortune," says Rhett.)

    Like Scarlett's, Becky's is a story about how the need for money changes everything. She overreaches when she borrows from the Marquess of Steyne here he's Gabriel Byrne, not the homunculus Thackeray described who later demands to be paid back with her favors and ruins her reputation. And in another departure from the novel, Steyne delivers the film's most clear-sighted, cynical assessment of society, paving Becky's way into an elevated world while explicitly warning that she may be disappointed when she gets inside those doors. Like Thackeray himself, he sees through the sham of social propriety.

    Yet, true to Thackeray's vision, he uses his power callously. When he tries to call in his loan orchestrating a night alone with Becky we see the difference between him and his not-so-blameless victim.

    "I'm innocent," Becky cries when Rawdon catches her with Steyne. That is technically true, if only by a matter of minutes; her resistance to him is one reason we don't judge her too harshly.

    "You, innocent when my money has bought every trinket on your body?" Steyne yells. He is a cold user of people, while Becky has thoughtlessly gotten in over her head.

    "There is this English attitude that you must have your comeuppance if you do something wrong; that attitude," Ms. Nair said, "I had no time for. Today Becky would be a champion for crossing classes."

    And so, in this version, she is. By presenting her as a proto-modern woman resiliently building a better future for herself, this "Vanity Fair" goes a long way toward explaining why Becky Sharp has been so enduring. That's not clear in the many other screen versions, including the last, a forgettable 1998 BBC mini-series, or the most famous, Rouben Mamoulian's "Becky Sharp." In that 1935 film, Miriam Hopkins as Becky has the brazen manners and heart of a 30's gold-digger; that the movie is considered a classic has more to do with its Technicolor innovations than its outlandish heroine.

    hopefully no scenes of explicit nature in this one, we have hollywood taking care of that issue , surely the trend doesn't need to be repeated elsewhere.


      Originally posted by garma_garam_gup:
      hopefully no scenes of explicit nature in this one, we have hollywood taking care of that issue , surely the trend doesn't need to be repeated elsewhere.

      hav u seen a bollywood movie liately>???
      The grass ain't always greener on the other side, it's green where you water it.


        ^ i'm a fan of mira nair's work i was referring to a certain scene in her film monsoon wedding and was hoping she won't repeat it in this new movie of her's?

        i wasn't talking about bollywood movies in general i know their story inside out, but even that trend is gonna fade soon. no trend in hindi cinema is immortal, the audience want to see changes now and then.