Vanity Fair is a moving, visually stunning, and brilliant epic that may turn out to land Mrs. Phillippe something even more golden than her lawful locks. Start the voting folks, I think we have officially found 2004's first potential Best Picture candidate.
Based on the 19th century novel by William Makepeace Thackery, Vanity Fair tells the tale of Becky Sharp (Reese Witherspoon), a feisty redhead determined to veer from her poor upbringing to become the 1800's social equivalent of Paris Hilton. This rags to riches to rags and back to riches story has Becky facing many challenges along the way. From heartache to heartbreak, she will stop at nothing to become part of the elite. By Becky’s side for most of the journey is her long time friend, Amelia Sedley (Romola Garai). Amelia’s family has the money that Becky doesn’t and after an initial meet and greet with Amelia’s family, it is obvious Becky has to go it alone. Over the course of the thirty or so years this film encompasses, Becky and Amelia stray apart farther and farther courtesy of Amelia’s husband George Osbourne (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers). Without Amelia, Becky must go it alone. When she does she finds love in Rawdon Crawley (James Purefoy) and a way into the social scene through the Marquess of Steyne (Gabriel Byrne). Yet as Becky, now Mrs. Crawley finally gets to where she has always dreamt of being, it is soon apparent that there is most definitely a price to be paid.
Every frame of Vanity Fair is fantastic. Director Mira Nair (Monsoon Wedding) sets a bar for women flimmakers today. Her masterful eye is where all this film’s greatness truly comes to fruition. She hones Bollywood skills from her native India on this project. It is this flavor to her art that makes Vanity Fair just that much better than a typical period piece. She patches together rich atmosphere with a great story, using costume and production design teams who totally did not phone this job in. Who would have imagined such a combination of elements were possible from a source that has been adapted by Hollywood nine times in the last ninety-three years?
Better still is her stellar ensemble cast bringing to life incredibly fresh characters. Reese Witherspoon gets top billing in this film and justifiably so. In what is easily the best role she’s played to date, this high-pitched little girl from Tennessee goes toe to toe and is on par with just about every Brit on the call sheet. It is our voyage with her all the way through the entirety of Vanity Fair that makes her shine brighter then them all. Similarly, by no account do any of the men in this film match up to Rhys Ifans. Having spent the last several years since Notting Hill playing over the top eccentric roles, this was Ifans’s chance to play it straight. It works and he ends up as the most sympathetic character in the entire film. As for the rest of the cast, Rhys-Meyers shows more and more promise after every flick that goes on his resumé, Purefoy does a bang up job adding the right doses of machismo in a flick that overflows with estrogen. Romola Garai does wonders and it is easy to forget watching this movie that she was the Jennifer Grey equivalent in Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights. Veterans Gabriel Byrne, Jim Broadbent, and Bob Hoskins all do their part to add weight to the film that it’s younger cast probably bring home alone. But the ones to truly watch are Reese and Rhys. Under the direction of Mira Nair, Witherspoon and Ifans give Oscar worthy performances in an Oscar friendly film. All three deserve Academy recognition of some sort.
Regardless of this being a quintessential “Chick Flick”, Vanity Fair is a must see, if only because the really, really good stuff doesn’t come out for another two months or so. Granted, most guys out there are probably not going to be prone to jump in line for this movie opening day...but c’mon ladies...it’s about time to crack the whip. After a mind numbing summer of The Chronicles of Riddick, I, Robot, and Exorcist: The Beginning isn’t it about time to show them who really wears the pants? Trust me, smart guys will thank you.
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