William Makepeace Thackery’s sprawling 1828 novel Vanity Fair spins the intricate story of Becky Sharp, a clever, beautiful and willful young woman determined to rise above her plebian past into the rarified air of the British aristocracy. Reese Witherspoon breathes fire and passion into Becky as she wends her way through a treacherous and unforgiving social milieu. An ensemble cast of veteran British actors compliments Witherspoon’s portrayal with engaging performances of their own.
The daughter of a brilliant yet destitute painter and a French opera performer, Becky has no pedigree to recommend her. What she lacks in breeding, however, she more than makes up for with determination. She successfully graduates from a boarding school where she meets her lifelong friend, Amelia Sedley. Afterwards, she travels with Amelia to spend a week with her friend’s family. Becky’s charm wins the affection of Amelia’s brother, Joseph, who commences an immediate and unsophisticated pursuit of her heart. Meanwhile, Amelia’s fiancé, George Osborne, feigns love for Amelia even as he’s captivated by Becky. He also goes out of his way to quash Joseph’s willingness to stay the romantic course with Becky. We’re also introduced to Amelia’s friend and would-be suitor, Captain Dobbin, a friend of George’s who struggles to suppress his dismay at George’s maneuvering.
After this brief interlude, Becky travels to serve as the governess for the aged Sir Pitt Crawley’s two young daughters. And she immediately sets about putting his estate in order, and winning the hearts of Crawley’s younger son. Her subsequent—clandestine—marriage and her journey to London set the stage for her to begin to scale the rungs of the British social scene. One observer quips, “I had thought her a mere social climber. I see now she’s a mountaineer.”
Alas, pregnancy and her husband, Rawdon’s, gambling addiction gradually get in the way of her aspirations. One day Becky comes home to find creditors moving furniture out of her home. Her tearful pleas go unanswered until a neighbor, the rich and ruthless Marquess of Steyne, steps up to pay the debt. Becky’s new benefactor, however, gives no gift out the goodness of his heart. The cost of Becky’s obligation to Steyne is staggering. Only an unlikely twist at the end of the film offers Becky a chance at partial redemption for years she’s lost.
The strength of Vanity Fair is its essentially moral center. Though Becky is determined to climb the social ladder, she sacrifices her relationship with her husband and her son on the altar of pursuit, and her self-centered attitude is ultimately not rewarded. By the end of the film, other less clever and beautiful characters have created for themselves a much more stable and happy life than has Becky. The story spans many years of these character’s lives; thus it shows the relational consequences of selfish decisions. Becky loses much of what she loves, while others’ simple faithfulness is rewarded. Though it has romantic moments, the film offers a sobering vision of how our choices play out over the long haul.
It also portrays several characters with deep loyalty to one another, and highlights the benefits of such behavior. Despite her flaws, Becky tries to be a faithful friend to Amelia, sacrificing a safe exit from war-torn Brussels to remain with her and telling Amelia the hard truth about her first husband’s lack of love for her. Pitt Crowley the younger is a bit of an oddball, but his basic goodness becomes more and more apparent as the tale reaches climax.
In several early scenes, Pitt Crawley the younger sings heartfelt prayers before meals. His family, however, wields contempt for his piety, even interrupting one of those prayers. As time goes by, however, Pitt and his family seem to have found the stability that’s so eluded other characters in the film, implying that his faith yielded significant dividends.
Becky is well aware of her primary assets: her sexual appeal coupled with a playful, teasing wit. And she consistently uses her feminine wiles to manipulate those under her spell. Still, when Rawdon first suggests a sexual liaison with Becky, she replies, “Only two men will ever enter my bedroom: My husband and my doctor.” After her secret marriage to Rawdon, Becky shares one scene in the bedroom with him in which he lies shirtless on the bed while she sits next to him. He caresses her back, which is exposed through the undone lacing of her dress—apparently after a sexual encounter. Becky tells her husband that she is pregnant, and he kisses her. (The scene is sensual without being overly sexualized.)
Elsewhere, many of the female characters wear dresses with tight corsets pushing up their highly exposed cleavages. Becky and a troupe of dancers perform a sensual Indian dance for an aristocratic audience. Their costumes might be likened to something belly dancers would wear, with midriffs exposed and thin, gauzy scarves wrapped around their bodies. The dance’s choreography reminded me of a modern rock video, somewhat Madonna-esque.
A sobering scene shows a man forcing Becky into a compromising position, determined to have his way with her despite her resistance. He violently unhooks the front of her dress, exposing her undergarments before her husband bursts into the room and starts a fist fight with him. [Spoiler Warning] After she loses her family, Becky ends up as a card dealer in German casino. The context implies that Becky and other female dealers may also be prostitutes.
Rawdon attacks the man who tried to rape Becky. The two wrestle and hit one another before the interloper falls down a flight of stairs. Following the British victory over Napoleon at Waterloo, the camera lingers on images of the intermingled bodies of dead British and French soldiers.
Three characters say “god” or “Oh god.” Four times, characters use the word “d–n.”
Wine is drunk at meals and formal balls. George smokes a cigarette.
After receiving a dictionary at the completion of her schooling, Becky tosses it out the window of her carriage, representing her rejection of society’s traditional values. One scene depicts the aged woman emerging from a bath. (Her torso is covered with a tunic of sorts, but part of her backside is exposed.)
Vanity Fair is a throwback to another time—a time when authors focused not just on a single hero or heroine, but on a huge cast of supporting characters. I remember trying in vain to make my way through Thackery’s 1,000-plus page novel in my college lit class. I gave up after a couple-hundred pages because I kept wondering when the story was going to start—and it was time for the next book in the class!
Modern audiences may respond similarly to director Mira Nair’s visually sumptuous but slow-moving adaptation. Thackery and Nair confound today’s movie-watching sensibilities, slowly adding layers of subtle character development and artfully depicting the cumulative effects of each character’s choices. Becky is an engaging and sympathetic figure, and we want her to reach her goal. At the same time, it becomes increasingly clear that her choices will result in the tragic loss of the relationships most dear to her. A surprise ending restores some of her dreams, but only after many years of unnecessary sadness.
As the title of the movie itself suggests, Vanity Fair could be a good starting point for mature discussion about what matters most in life. It has much to offer thoughtful and patient viewers who are willing to talk about its messages and morals.
After serving as an associate editor at NavPress’ Discipleship Journal and consulting editor for Current Thoughts and Trends, Adam now oversees the editing and publishing of Plugged In’s reviews.