“VANITY FAIR” (2004) Review

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“VANITY FAIR” (2004) Review

William Makepeace Thackery’s 1848 novel about the life and travails of an ambitious young woman in early 19th century has generated many film and television adaptations. One of them turned out to be the 2004 movie that was directed by Mira Nair.

“VANITY FAIR” covers the early adulthood of one Becky Sharp, the pretty and ambitious daughter of an English not-so-successful painter and a French dancer during the early years from 1802 to 1830. The movie covers Becky’s life during her impoverished childhood with her painter father, during her last day as a student at Miss Pinkerton’s Academy for Young Ladies, where she meets her only friend Amelia Sedley – the only daughter of a slightly wealthy gentleman and her years as a governess for the daughters of a crude, yet genial baronet named Sir Pitt Crawley. While working for the Crawleys, Becky meets and falls in love with Sir Pitt’s younger son, Captain Rawdon Crawley. When Sir Pitt proposes marriage to Becky, she shocks the family with news of her secret marriage to Rawdon. The couple is ostracized and ends up living in London on Rawdon’s military pay and gambling winnings. They also become reacquainted with Amelia Sedley, who has her own problems. When her father loses his fortune, the father of her beau, George Osborne, tries to arrange a marriage between him and a Jamaican heiress. Leery of the idea of marrying a woman of mixed blood, he marries Amelia behind Mr. Obsorne’s back, and the latter disinherits him. Not long after George and Amelia’s marriage, word reaches Britain of Napoleon’s escape from Elba and control of France. Becky and Amelia follow Rawdon, George, and Dobbin, who are suddenly deployed to Brussels as part of the Duke of Wellington’s army. And life for Becky and those close to her prove to be even more difficult.

The first thing I noticed about “VANITY FAIR” was that it was one of the most beautiful looking movies I have ever seen in recent years. Beautiful and colorful. A part of me wonders if director Mira Nair was responsible for the movie’s overall look. Some people might complain and describe the movie’s look as garish. I would be the first to disagree. Despite its color – dominated by a rich and deep red that has always appealed to me – “VANITY FAIR” has also struck me as rather elegant looking film, thanks to cinematographer Declan Quinn. But he was not the only one responsible for the film’s visual look. Maria Djurkovic’s production designs and the work from the art direction team – Nick Palmer, Sam Stokes and Lucinda Thomson. All did an excellent job of not only creating what I believe to be one of the most colorful and elegant films I have ever seen, but also in re-creating early 19th century Britain, Belgium, Germany and India. But I do have a special place in my heart for Beatrix Aruna Pasztor’s costume designs. I found them absolutely ravishing. Colorful . . . gorgeous. I am aware that many did not find them historically accurate. Pasztor put a bit more Hollywood into her designs than history. But I simply do not care. I love them. And to express this love, the following is a brief sample of her costumes worn by actress Reese Witherspoon:

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I understand that Witherspoon was pregnant at the time and Pasztor had to accommodate the actress’ pregnancy for her costumes. Judging from what I saw on the screen, I am beginning to believe that Witherspoon’s pregnancy served her role in the story just fine.

Now that I have raved over the movie’s visual look and style, I might as well talk about the movie’s adaptation. When I first heard about “VANITY FAIR”, the word-of-mouth on the Web seemed to be pretty negative. Thackery’s novel is a long one – written in twenty parts. Naturally, a movie with a running time of 141 minutes was not about to cover everything in the story. And I have never been one of those purists who believe that a movie or television adaptation had to be completely faithful to its source. Quite frankly, it is impossible for any movie or television miniseries to achieve. And so, it was not that surprising that the screenplay written by Julian Fellowes, Matthew Faulk and Mark Skeet would not prove to be an accurate adaptation. I expected that. However, there were some changes I could have done without.

Becky Sharp has always been one of the most intriguing female characters in literary history. Among the traits that have made her fascinating were her ambitions, amorality, talent for manipulation and sharp tongue. As much as I enjoyed Reese Witherspoon’s performance in the movie – and I really did – I thought it was a mistake for Fellowes, Faulk and Skeet to make Becky a more “likeable” personality in the movie’s first half. One, it took a little bite not only out of the character, but from the story’s satirical style, as well. And two, I found this change unnecessary, considering that literary fans have always liked the darker Becky anyway. Thankfully, this vanilla-style Becky Sharp disappeared in the movie’s second half, as the three screenwriters returned to Thackery’s sharper and darker portrayal of the character. I was also a little disappointed with the movie’s sequence featuring Becky’s stay at the Sedley home and her seduction of Amelia’s older brother, Jos. I realize that as a movie adaptation, “VANITY FAIR” was not bound to be completely accurate as a story. But I was rather disappointed with the sequence featuring Becky’s visit to the Sedley home at Russell Square in London. Perhaps it was just me, but I found that particular sequence somewhat rushed. I was also disappointed by Nair and producer Jannette Day’s decision to delete the scene featuring Becky’s final meeting with her estranged son, Rawdy Crawley. This is not out of some desire to see Robert Pattinson on the screen. Considering that the movie’s second half did not hesitate to reveal Becky’s lack of warmth toward her son, I felt that this last scene could have remained before she departed Europe for India with Jos.

Despite my complaints and the negative view of the movie by moviegoers that demanded complete accuracy, I still enjoyed “VANITY FAIR” very much. Although I was a little disappointed in the movie’s lighter portrayal of the Becky Sharp, I did enjoy some of the other changes. I had no problem with the addition of a scene from Becky’s childhood in which she first meets Lord Steyne. I felt that this scene served as a strong and plausible omen of her future relationship with the aristocrat. Unlike others, I had no problems with Becky’s fate in the end of the movie. I have always liked the character, regardless of her amoral personality. And for once, it was nice to see her have some kind of happy ending – even with the likes of the lovesick Jos Sedley. Otherwise, I felt that “VANITY FAIR” covered a good deal of Thackery’s novel with a sense of humor and flair.

I have always found it odd that most people seemed taken aback by an American in a British role more so than a Briton in an American role. After all, it really depends upon the individual actor or actress on whether he or she can handle a different accent. In the case of Reese Witherspoon, she used a passable British accent, even if it was not completely authentic. More importantly, not only did she give an excellent performance, despite the writers’ changes in Becky’s character, she was also excellent in the movie’s second half, which revealed Becky’s darker nature.

Witherspoon was ably assisted with a first-rate cast. The movie featured fine performances from the likes of James Purefoy, Deborah Findley, Tony Maudsley, Geraldine McEwan, Eileen Atkins, Douglas Hodge, Natasha Little (who portrayed Becky Sharp in the 1998 television adaptation of the novel), and especially Romola Garai and Jonathan Rhys-Meyers as Amelia Sedley and George Osborne. But I was especially impressed by a handful of performances that belonged to Bob Hoskins, Rhys Ifans and Gabriel Byrne. Bob Hoskins was a delight as the slightly crude and lovesick Sir Pitt Crawley. Rhys Ifans gave one of his most subtle performances as the upright and slightly self-righteous William Dobbins, who harbored a unrequited love for Amelia. Jim Broadbent gave an intense performance as George’s ambitious and grasping father. And Gabriel Byrne was both subtle and cruel as the lustful and self-indulgent Marquis of Steyne.

In the end, I have to say that I cannot share the negative opinions of “VANITY FAIR”. I realize that it is not a “pure” adaptation of William Makepeace Thackery’s novel or that it is perfect. But honestly, I do not care. Despite its flaws, “VANITY FAIR” proved to be a very entertaining movie for me. And I would have no problem watching it as much as possible in the future.

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“THIS MEANS WAR” (2012) Review

“THIS MEANS WAR” (2012) Review

The story idea of two male friends battling for the affections of one woman has not been new to Hollywood. One of the earliest examples of this kind of plot proved to Ernst Lubitsch’s 1933 adaptation of Noel Coward’s play. The latest film to play out this scenario was McG’s movie, “THIS MEANS WAR”.

Written by Timothy Dowling and Simon Kinberg, “THIS MEANS WAR” began two C.I.A. agents and best friends FDR Foster and Tuck Henson being deployed to Hong Kong to prevent international criminals/brothers Heinrich and Jonas from acquiring a weapon of mass destruction. Unfortunately, the assignment goes awry, resulting in the death of Jonas and Heinrich swearing revenge against FDR and Tuck. For the two agents’ protection, their boss, Collins, assigns them to desk duty upon returning to the U.S.

While both are busy investigating the whereabouts of Heinrich, the divorced Tuck decides to find a new girlfriend via online dating. He eventually meets a product testing executive named Lauren Scott and falls for her. Not long after the two first met, womanizer FDR meets Lauren at a video store and unsuccessfully hits on her. But when FDR helps her fool an ex-boyfriend into believing she had a boyfriend, the pair eventually become attracted to one another. Lauren feels guilty about dating two men, but her girlfriend Trish convinces her to give it a try to see whom she likes best. Meanwhile, FDR and Tuck discover they are both dating Lauren and eventually begin to compete for her hand. While the two agents continue to compete for Lauren’s love, Heinrich sets about investigating their whereabouts in order to seek revenge.

Although “THIS MEANS WAR” was not a big box office hit, it did manage to earn over twice its budget, which made it a minimal success. I really did not expect much from the film, but I must admit that the movie’s plot did intrigue me. How did I feel about it? In some ways, “THIS MEANS WAR” reminds me of the 2005 action comedy, “MR. AND MRS. SMITH”. In other words, the movie’s romance and comedy overshadowed its plot line. And if I must be honest, this did not bother me one bit. The movie’s action did not attract my attention in the first place.

However, at least the action in “MR. AND MRS. SMITH” struck me as more substantial and played a major role in the romance and comedy between the two major characters. I cannot say the same for “THIS MEANS WAR”. The movie’s action nearly struck me as irrelevant and the characters of FDR and Tuck could have easily had other professions. And I do have one complaint about the movie’s love triangle. A part of me wished that it could have ended on the same note as “DESIGN FOR LIVING”. Instead, it ended with Lauren choosing one man over the other. And I found this resolution lacking a little bite or originality.

Aside from Lauren eventually choosing one man over the other, I cannot deny that I found the movie’s romantic plot very satisfying. More importantly, it was surprisingly funny. “THIS MEANS WAR” could boast some hilarious scenes and dialogue that had me shaking with laughter. Among my favorite moments include Lauren and Tuck’s afternoon at a paintball field, and FDR’s efforts to impress Lauren at a dog pound. Thanks to Dowling and Kinberg’s script and McG’s direction, the movie featured some hilarious conversations in the movie. My favorite scene included a conversation between Lauren and Trish overheard by the two men, in which she compared both their virtues and shortcomings. But even the movie’s final action scene included a hilarious moment that featured Trish during a high speed chase.

“THIS MEANS WAR” had a solid cast that included pleasant performances from Rosemary Harris, who portrayed FDR’s grandmother; Warren Christie as Lauren’s too perfect boyfriend; John Paul Rittan as Tuck’s son Joe; and Abigail Spencer as his ex-wife, Katie. Both Angela Bassett and Til Schweiger were appropriately intimidating as FDR and Tuck’s C.I.A. supervisor, and master criminal Heinrich. However, there were moments when I found Bassett’s performance to be a little over-the-top and Schweiger seemed a bit wasted in his all too brief appearances. The one supporting performance that really impressed me came from comedienne Chelsea Handler. One could accuse Handler of taking her stand-up routine and utilizing it in her role as Lauren’s best friend, Trish. Fortunately, Handler proved to be a first-rate comic actress who also handled her more poignant moments featuring the character’s marriage very well.

But the three performances that made this movie truly enjoyable came from Reese Witherspoon, Chris Pine and Tom Hardy. I was surprised by the high level of chemistry between the three performers. Not only did Witherspoon possessed great chemistry with the two actors individually, but both Pine and Hardy managed to create a first-rate “bromance” between them. It seemed a shame that Witherspoon’s character ended up choosing one over the other. Also, Witherspoon was charming and witty as the beleaguered Lauren. Pine made a first-rate ladies’ man and still managed to convey his character’s feelings for the leading lady as very believable. And Hardy expertly walked a fine line as an introverted romantic and aggressive intelligence agent.

“THIS MEANS WAR” was not perfect. The action subplot was not as strong as I thought it could be. Which lead me to believe that the professions of the two male protagonists could have easily been something other than C.I.A. agents. But I cannot deny that McG directed a very funny movie, which was blessed with three talented performers in the lead. To my surprise, I ended up enjoying “THIS MEANS WAR” very much.