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Vanity Fair
3 of 5 stars
Directed by Mira Nair.
Starring Reese Witherspoon, James Purefoy, Romola Garai, Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, Gabriel Byrne, Jim Broadbent, Bob Hoskins and Rhys Ifans.

Sense & Sensibility
5 of 5 stars
Directed by Ang Lee.
Starring Emma Thompson, Hugh Grant, Kate Winslet and Alan Rickman.

Set in the early 19th century, Vanity Fair tells the story of Rebecca Sharp (Reese Witherspoon), the daughter of a painter and an opera singer. Orphaned at an early age and raised at a girls' boarding school, she becomes close with Amelia Sedley (Romola Garai). Becky spends a week with Amelia's family before taking a position as governess for the Pitt family, a titled family of little fortune. She sways the heart of Amelia's portly, obsequious brother, Jos, but Amelia's fiancée, George Osborne (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers), advises him against the match because it is obvious she is simply out to land herself a rich husband and find a place in "good society." After leaving the Pitts' to serve as governess for their wealthy old relative, Miss Crawley (Eileen Atkins), she then elopes with Sir Pitt's son and Miss Crawley's nephew Rawdon (James Purefoy) -- but unluckily for them, Miss Crawley disapproves of the match. Cut off from his aunt's fortune, they raise their son on his military wages until Becky meets Lord Steyne (Gabriel Byrne), who was a patron of Becky's father. He gives her the money and connection to high society she lusts after, but needless to say, he hopes to be repaid with what he lusts after... And it goes on from there.

I have not read William Makepeace Thackeray's 1848 novel Vanity Fair: A Novel without a Hero, so I have no idea whether Reese Witherspoon's new film is faithful to its source material. I also haven't seen any of the other eight film and TV adaptations of the novel, either, so I can't even compare this new version to any of them. But regardless of not knowing if it is a good adaptation, I do know that Vanity Fair isn't a very good film.

Director Mira Nair (Monsoon Wedding) and cinematographer Declan Quinn deserve a fair amount of credit for making Vanity Fair one of the more attractive period dramas I've seen. Whereas entirely too many films of the genre employ the same dingy color palettes and dreary sets to get that "old" look, Nair has the sense to inject some of the gaudy colors and over-the-top fashions that the Victorian era was so fond of in real life. Nair also seems to have graciously convinced her actors to not act like they were born with sticks up their asses, which alone sets it apart from far too many period films, particularly some of the horribly tedious BBC productions I've seen.

Also, the music is gorgeous. In addition to Mychael Danna's score, we are treated to a couple of songs (sung by Custer LaRue and lip-synched by Witherspoon), one of which is a Tennyson poem set to music. (Not that it matters, but them poem is "Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal," which was published in 1847 -- somewhat too late to have been sung by our anti-heroine.) There is also a terrific, if rather incongruous, Indian piece that accompanies a gorgeous dance number. As in most Victorian-era period films, we also see a bit of ballroom dancing, which is always a welcome sight.

Unfortunately, Nair's Vanity Fair, for all its beauty, falls prey to the same problem that many film adaptations suffer from. The script by Julian Fellowes (Gosford Park) feels too compact for its enormous scope, resulting in a Cliff's Notes feel to the whole film. Even at 137 minutes, I got the feeling that the movie needed to be at least an hour longer in order to do the story any justice at all. The novel is around 800 or 900 pages, depending on the edition, so even that is probably a bit too short. In Nair's version, something happens to propel the story forward in every single scene, which is often a good thing in film, except that most of the scenes are no more than a minute long: the story simply flows too swiftly to run very deep.

The dramatic moments are so undermined by the breakneck pace that they fail to have any effect at all. With only trace amounts of the misanthropic social commentary attributed to the novel, the romantic stories of Amelia and Becky are the center of the film, but even so, you don't get to know the characters enough to understand them, let alone either care about them or detest them. You get no sense of why Amelia is so in love with the caddish George, and no sense of why George's closest friend Dobbin (Notting Hill and Human Nature's Rhys Ifans) is so concerned about Amelia. Likewise, you simply have to accept that Becky and Rawdon have fallen truly in love (and, later, out again), rather than actually getting to witness it yourself.

With so little sense of the characters and their relationships with each other — or with the society around them — there just isn't much to care about in the film. Even so, it has enough superficial pleasures to merit a matinee or, in a few months, a rental. But rather than subject yourself to a Fair-to-middling melodrama, I might suggest a far better film instead, director Ang Lee and screenwriter/star Emma Thompson's 1995 adaptation of Jane Austen's Sense & Sensibility.

I'm man enough to admit it: I love Jane Austen adaptations. I'm more into films than novels, so even though I've seen nearly every Jane Austen adaptation ever made, I've only read one of her novels all the way through. To the filmmakers' credit, when I once started reading Sense & Sensibility a few weeks after seeing the movie, the story felt too familiar, too fresh in my mind to hold my attention. I found myself setting the book down after a few chapters to fall in love with Persuasion instead -- one of Austen's novels that has yet to be adapted well.

Compared with the other Austen films I've seen, Sense is roughly even with the BBC TV mini-series adaptation of Pride & Prejudice starring Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle. Where Pride & Prejudice has greater depth thanks to its five hour running time, Sense & Sensibility has better production values, thanks to Ang Lee's extraordinary visual sense and Hollywood's deep pockets, so it's difficult to pick a favorite from the two. Suffice it to say, I adore them both. (The version of Emma starring Gwyneth Paltrow is also very enjoyable, but it comes in at a distant third in the Jane Austen movie hierarchy.)

In Sense & Sensibility, Mr. Dashwood (Tom Wilkinson) dies suddenly, leaving his second wife (Gemma Jones) and daughters Elinor (Emma Thompson, who also wrote the screenplay), Marianne (Kate Winslet) and Margaret (Emilie François) at the mercy of his daughter. The laws of inheritance demand that Mr. Dashwood's son by his first wife, John Dashwood (James Fleet), gains the entirety of his estate. John Dashwood is coerced by his wife Fanny (Harriet Walker) to more or less renege on a promise to look after his half-sisters and their mother. The Misses Dashwood soon move out of their home to a small cottage through the good graces of Sir John Middleton (Robert Hardy), though not before Elinor has become close with Fanny's brother Edward (Hugh Grant). In their new neighborhood, they meet Willoughby (Greg Wise), a dashing young man who literally sweeps Marianne off her feet, as well as Colonel Brandon (Alan Rickman), an older gentleman who keeps his words to a minimum.

Essentially an achingly sweet parable about balancing passion ("sensibility") and reason ("sense") in matters of love, Sense & Sensibility, like all Jane Austen novels, is all about the melodrama. As such, the rest of the story is entirely predictable, but I think predictability in stories is often given a bad rap. A film is predictable because it makes sense. A film is entertaining not because of how it ends, but how it arrives at that ending, and Sense & Sensibility is one of the most entertaining films I've ever had the pleasure of seeing... seven times. Thompson's script is filled with all of the wit and charm of Austen's prose and, under the guiding hand of Ang Lee (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), Sense features a number of Hollywood's best actors in their finest hours; I can't bring myself to explain one scene during which Emma Thompson makes me cry every single time I've seen the film. Yeah, yeah. I'm so sensitive.

Vanity Fair is playing at the Century 12/CinéArts 6 in Evanston, Loews Garden 1-6 in Skokie, Piper's Alley, the Davis Theatre and Landmark's Renaissance Place in Highland Park.

Sense & Sensibility airs this Sunday, September 6, at 2:30 pm on Turner Classic Movies. It is also available for rent or purchase on a Special Edition DVD that features a couple of wisely deleted scenes and two commentary tracks (one by Ang Lee and co-producer James Schamus and another by Ms. Thompson and producer Lindsay Doran). A new "Classic Masterpiece book & DVD set" will be released later this month, although the disc's features will be identical.

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Comments

Shylo / September 3, 2004 9:52 AM

Thanks, GMcA, for giving S&S proper propers. It's a lovely film, full of choking longing. Jane Austen does a lovely job of depicting strong women working around conventions, not dying under them.

I don't know that I'll see VF. Your review is similar to Salon's. And I trust you both.

Gordon / September 3, 2004 10:24 AM

awww ... shucks.

 

About the Author(s)

Gordon McAlpin writes his movie reviews with a red light-up Spy Kids pen, which he thinks is the coolest thing ever, even though he didnít like the movie that much.

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