Vanity Fair: The Foibles of Movie Reviewers

We saw Vanity Fair yesterday. It's very well done, I think, though it perhaps does have some flaws. Reese Witherspoon is constantly compelling -- unnervingly bright -- as Becky Sharp. Witherspoon has a trademark look ("determination") that is perfectly suited to the role she's playing; also crucial is the look she has when she's been put down (with a flick of the eyes: "you are of course right, and there's nothing I can say, but did you really have to just say that?"). There are some very funny moments, though I think the jibes about Goneril and Regan went over the heads of the audience in Orange, CT; I was the only one laughing (but then, I am such a geek).

In this case, the film itself is not so much the story as are the legions of mediocre film reviewers out there. When an overly-hyped director comes out with a movie that doesn't quite hold together, they're quick to smell a flop (it may well happen -- the theater was nearly empty on Friday night). Also, when anyone does an adaptation of a work of literature, reviewers are quick to comment on the faithfulness of the adaptation without giving any real indication they have read the book being adapted.

At least Stephen Holden of the New York Times gives us an actual interpretation of the novel en route to his final thumbs-down:

But "Vanity Fair" has a deeper conceptual confusion. In mixing satire and romance, the movie proves once again that the two are about as compatible as lemon juice and heavy cream. The Thackeray novel is a sweeping satire of the rampant drive for upward mobility in a Britain newly flush with the wealth flowing from its colonies. Thackeray grounded the novel in an omniscient, often caustic voice looking down (and askance) at his characters and their foibles.

The movie flashes to comic life in those scenes that convey Thackeray's disdain for the preening foolishness and snobbery of early 19th-century British society and the crass symbiotic relationship between money and aristocracy. Then, as now, you could buy your way to the top, and one of the sharpest scenes observes a crude premarital negotiation that goes nowhere.

Everyone agrees that the aristocracy are bad. (Bad, bad aristocrats! No more inbreeding for you.) But is Becky Sharp good? How do you read the book? Michael Wilmington of the Chicago Tribune doesn't think so:

In Thackeray's "Fair," we see an initially poor but pretty, witty lass clawing up to the British elite, pitting herself against its fools, fops, frauds and fellow schemers. The mostly unsentimental Thackeray thought she was a villainess. But was Becky good or evil -- or somewhere in between? Heartless schemer, social climber and conscienceless seductress -- as the great novelist kept insisting? Or a kind of prefeminist pragmatist fighting for her rights to rise in an amoral society forcing her to be "bad" -- as Nair seems to feel?

The book sees it one way, the film another. Here's my vote, though, for the bad Becky, the one the brilliant Nair suggests, yet can't quite bring herself to reveal.

All of this is arguable. Is Nair's version really a softer side of Becky Sharp? In my view, there is some softness there in the novel itself, though it comes in through the back door. Part of the pleasure of Thackeray's novel is that the reader identifies with Becky not despite, but for her shallow unscrupulousness and disloyalty. Thackeray knows his own shallowness, and that of his readers, only too well, and he plays it through to the end. The bottom line is, we like her anyways -- and the only way to transfer that delicate sense of bemused attraction to film is by flattening some irony, and have Reese Witherspoon put on her million-dollar, movie-star smile for the camera.

[UPDATE: Check out a real Victorianist's response to the film over at The Little Professor.]

Even if in disagreement, at least there is informed opinion in these reviews. The reviewers in other papers, as well as magazines like Time and Rolling Stone, are not so erudite. For instance, Bruce Westbrook of the Houston Chronicle calls the story (unclear whether he's talking about the movie or the book) an "epic tragedy," which is wrong on both fronts. He also refers to Becky as a "budding feminist," which is very much a questionable characterization, both in Nair and in Thackeray. (It's arguably untrue in Thackeray, arguably true in Nair)

And Richard Schickel, in Time, shows he clearly hasn't read the novel, when he writes, "[Nair's film] is more exotic than Thackeray's, more laden with the booty of a burgeoning colonial empire, but Nair, Indian by birth, is entitled to her opinions about the exploitations on which England's wealth was based." Not only is it not true (there's a fair amount of exoticism in the text of Thackeray's novel), but the second clause in Schickel's sentence doesn't respond to the first. How exactly does Nair's emphasis on the exotic reflect an opinion on the "exploitations [sic] on which England's wealth was based"?

This leads me to a more generalized gripe about race and marginality:

When reviewing a costume drama directed by a person who is not white (such as Shekhar Kapur with Elizabeth, the Hughes Brothers with From Hell, or, here, Mira Nair's Vanity Fair), there is a strong temptation to comment on the background of the director. In Mira Nair's case this is somewhat appropriate, as Thackeray's birthplace was in Calcutta, and she says in an otherwise uninspired interview with Deborah Solomon that she directly remembers walking past Thackeray's bungalow on her way to "People's Protest Theater" in her college days. She also changes the story at some key points to play up the Indian/Imperial background. The ending especially is a surprising, er, departure from Thackeray. So it's fine and dandy to talk about Nair's Indian-ness, but within limits, and not at the expense of her accuracy and attention to detail to Thackeray's England.

In Shekhar Kapur's case the critical interest in his background became a serious distraction. Critics seemed not to be able to see Elizabeth for what it was -- a very ambitious, if still flawed, film. They were instead looking for the gaps, the apparent limits in the Indian director's knowledge of the English Renaissance. There was a smug emphasis on "correctness," which is annoying in light of the substantial historical research that goes into the making of costume dramas these days. The research behind films like Elizabeth and Shakespeare in Love dwarfs the knowledge of the average reporter from the Raleigh News-Observer, who nevertheless feels empowered to write phrases like, "He seems to have gotten Elizabethan England right, but..."

A final case in point is Phillip Wuntch, of the Dallas Morning News . Wuntch's take as a whole is essentially the party line for people who didn't like the movie -- Nair has softened Becky. But in the midst of saying nothing in particular comes a bit of nastiness:

In the movie, she is almost the same. But at times it’s a big "almost." Director Nair and the screenwriters haven’t de-clawed Becky, but they’ve softened her sting. The India-born Ms. Nair lists Vanity Fair as her favorite work of fiction. In interviews, she’s stated that growing up in a caste-conscious, colonized society allowed her to identify with Becky’s determination to crash 19th-century England’s rigid social codes. Perhaps there was a little too much identification. However, Reese Witherspoon plays the remorseless social climber almost entirely as Thackeray wrote her

A little too much identification?! What does that mean?

There's the bad odor here, not just of a boys' club (notice how many film reviewers are men!), but of a white boys club in particular. The reason complacent reviewers like Wuntch can't empathize with Becky Sharp (either as villain or as hero), is that they simply can't imagine what it might be like not to be born with the Keys to the Estate. For Nair, they can only quip, "nice try, but your film about social climbers... well, it smacks a little of social climbing, frankly." Give me a break.