A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that this adaptation of the classic Thackeray story Vanity Fair has a small amount of battlefield violence, including a field lined with dead bodies. The English class system is paramount to the plot of the story, and characters make bigoted remarks both about the "lower classes" and about people of color. Some characters are killed in battle, while others die suddenly; a child is left orphaned by the death of both of her parents. Expect adultery plus many veiled references to sex, couched in so much old-fashioned language that kids are unlikely to get them. Viewers see a woman's backside in a non-sexual situation. There is some social drinking at parties, and some characters act slightly drunk.
What's the story?
Based on William Thackeray's novel, VANITY FAIR is a colorful story about a woman who uses her allure to get what she wants in an era when people were supposed to take what they were given without trying for more. Becky Sharp (Reese Witherspoon), the daughter of an artist, could drive a bargain even as a very young girl. Both of her parents die and she is sent to a boarding school. She has only one friend in the school, Amelia (Romola Garai). Becky sets her sights on marrying for money. She tries first for Amelia's portly brother, visiting from India. She is successful with him, but his family wants him to marry within his class and net worth. She becomes governess in the household of the titled Sir Pitt Crawley (Bob Hoskins). There are two sons by the first wife, a dashing gambler (James Purefoy) and a prig. Becky takes a chance on getting everything -- love, money, and a position in society -- by marrying the gambler, but they are disinherited. Meanwhile, Amelia's family loses their fortune and Amelia has married George (Jonathan Rhys Meyers). She adores him so wholeheartedly that she cannot see how selfish and dishonest he is. Both women become pregnant and follow their husbands, who are on their way to fight in the battle of Waterloo. And the story is just getting started.
Is it any good?
Director Mira Nair (Monsoon Wedding) has made William Thackeray's story into a gorgeously vibrant film, all jewel-like colors and swirling fabrics. Witherspoon is, as ever, utterly delectable and so filled with spirit, fun, and charm that it is impossible not to root for her. Yet Witherspoon's success as Becky is in a way the movie's biggest weakness. Witherspoon takes on the movie the way Becky takes on the world, with oceans of sheer star quality to dazzle and beguile. But it throws the balance of the movie out of whack. Amelia, instead of counterpoint, just seems a droop by comparison, tiresome in her inability to see George's weakness or the way that his best friend loves her. Nair doesn't have the heart to let us dislike Becky, even when it would give the story more substance. So, instead of a thoughtful depiction of the strictures of society and the compromises made to adapt to or surmount them, all we get is something of a romp.
There's a lot to look at, though. Nair has grabbed onto the book's references to colonial India to provide an excuse for great swaths of sumptuous color and pageantry, even a Bollywood-style musical number. Even when the characters seem inconsistent and the direction of the story seems to falter, there is so much to see that even at two and a half hours, it is a splendid thing to see.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about the priorities and choices of the characters, especially Becky, Amelia, and Dobbin. What will happen to Becky next? Thackeray ends the book by saying, "which of us is happy in this world? Which of us has his desire? Or, having it, is satisfied?" How would you answer those questions with regard to the characters in the story?
Can you think of any other movies adapted from books? Which are your favorites?
- In theaters: September 3, 2004
- On DVD or streaming: February 1, 2005
- Cast: Gabriel Byrne, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Reese Witherspoon
- Director: Mira Nair
- Studio: Focus Features
- Genre: Drama
- Run time: 140 minutes
- MPAA rating: PG-13
- MPAA explanation: some sensuality/partial nudity and a brief violent image