In her most memorable roles, Reese Witherspoon wears an angel face that almost masks the guile beneath. Genuinely sweet in Legally Blonde, she can't entirely hide her glee when her professional success dovetails with some personal revenge. Less genuine in every way in Election, she puts on an accommodating smile to veil a ruthless political beast. This makes her the perfect choice to play Becky Sharp, the amoral social climber at the center of William Makepeace Thackeray's 19th-century bestseller Vanity Fair. Regrettably, somewhere along the line, director Mira Nair (Monsoon Wedding, Mississippi Masala) decided to make a film with only a superficial resemblance to the book which Thackeray declared "a novel without a hero" on its title page.
The plot does remain more or less the same; a lazy student cramming for a quiz could likely get by on Nair's Vanity Fair. The film faithfully recounts Witherspoon's travails as the impoverished daughter of a hard-living artist, a charity case at a fancy school, the governess for lowly aristocrat Bob Hoskins, the wife of soldier and eventual Waterloo veteran James Purefoy, and a suspect fixture on the social scene of Regency-era London. As she ascends, her friend Romola Garai sinks, losing a husband, a fortune, and eventually a child. Thackeray crafted Vanity Fair as a cynical study in contrasts: Virtue gets punished while vice gets rewarded. Only, puzzlingly, Nair treats her characters as a contrast between virtue and virtue: They're two nice young women who just happen to have different luck.
Whatever unsavory reputation Witherspoon's essentially nice Becky acquires comes purely as the result of social prejudice rather than her actions. This makes Nair's Vanity Fair either a radical reinterpretation of the source material or a mammoth failure of nerve. Whichever the case, it makes for a tremendously dull film that gives Witherspoon little to do except pose against a pretty backdrop. If a fraction of the energy invested in the production design had gone into the drama, Vanity Fair might have turned out as less of a slog.
Some of the supporting players have the right idea, particularly the slovenly Hoskins, as well as Douglas Hodge as Hoskins' tedious son. Both add much-needed color to a movie that never once succeeds in its attempts to squeeze Thackeray's misanthropy into a polite comedy of manners. Nair might as well have remade Scarface as the story of an industrious young immigrant who gets ahead through hard work and diligent bookkeeping.