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Vanity Fair (2004)

All’s fair in love & war.

Rating: 4/10

Running Time: 137 minutes

US Certificate: PG-13 UK Certificate: PG

It often seems as if the one thing that every Hollywood actor wants to do is make at least one costume drama. It’s their way of trying to convince the world (and perhaps also themselves) that they’re “serious” about the job, and that proper thesping isn’t beyond them. How else do you explain the fact that a film as average, uninteresting and unoriginal as ‘Vanity Fair’ managed to attract such a star-studded line-up? From Reese Witherspoon and Jonathan Rhys-Meyers to Bob Hoskins and Rhys Ifans, they’re all here, some of them in bigger roles than others, but all of them positively itching to prove that they’re all real luvvies, honest.

The ultimate irony, though, is that the original ‘Vanity Fair’ (written by William Makepeace Thackeray way back in1847) was intended as a sly dig at those who are obsessed with social status and would do anything to be accepted above their perceived station. Yet now, here it is being used by the movie stars of the day to do exactly what the thing is supposed to be satirizing.

At the front of the queue is Reese Witherspoon. She plays central character Becky Sharp, a one-time urchin who, over the course of the two-and-a-bit hours, schemes her way up the social ladder, happily stepping on the fingers of anyone who blocks her way as she goes. As she ploughs through men and money, she’s joined by best buddy Amelia (Romola Garai), a toff-with-a-heart who’s more-or-less oblivious to the true nature of her long-standing pal. Bless.

On the face of it, Witherspoon’s performance might seem like one of the best she’s ever produced. She puts absolutely everything she’s got into the role, captures the viewer’s attention, and makes the film her own – but then you remember that, in order for the story to work properly, we’re not actually supposed to like her character. Becky is supposed to be a prize bitch, and that’s just not a vibe Witherspoon seems capable of sending out. As a result, she’s woefully miscast here, the only saving grace being that as long as she’s doing stuff like this, she can’t be elsewhere making yet another painful instalment of Legally Blonde.

I can’t really fault Mira Nair’s direction here, and there’s no denying that the costumes and set design are fantastic. But writer Julian Fellowes veers away from the whole point of Thackeray’s scribblings, and in doing so turns razor-edged social commentary into melodramatic soap opera, with added sideburns and heaving bosoms. In fact, come to think of it, those bosoms are the only things that aren’t flat in what is essentially a boring and uninspiring adaptation. Because, be it the stars thesping it up or the turgid treatment of an old piece of classic literature, there’s nothing in ‘Vanity Fair’ that you won’t have seen before.

It's Got: A re-enactment of what could very well be one of the first ever times someone sent out for an Indian take-away.

It Needs: To ditch the excruciatingly out-of-place song-and-dance number which suddenly appears out of nowhere just as it’s starting to look like the film might be about to finish.


The cast-list might suggest otherwise, but this utterly forgettable costume drama really is one you should make a point of missing.