Directed by Mira Nair, starring Reese Witherspoon, Romola Garai, James Purefoy, Rhys Ifans, Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, Gabriel Byrne, Jim Broadbent and Bob Hoskins.
It takes much more than a lavish set, stunning costumes and beautiful actresses to make a period drama like this work and Nair's opulent staging of Thackeray's novel falls short of the mark in terms of rendering the social skulduggery of the piece in all its intricacy.
Reese Witherspoon dons a near flawless English accent to play Becky Sharp, the orphaned daughter of an artist, sent to a school for young ladies to work in return for an education. After school, she spends time with her only friend Amelia Sedley (Garai). Here we meet George Osborne (Rhys-Meyers), Amelia's intended and his faithful friend William Dobbin (Ifans) and George seals Becky's fate when he convinces Amelia's enamoured brother not to marry her.
At the home of Sir Pitt Crawley (Hoskins), Becky, now governess to his two daughters, wins the heart of his younger son Rawdon (Purefoy). When Sir Pitt's present wife dies, he too sets his sights on Becky, but is shocked to learn that she has secretly married Rawdon. The pair settle in London where Becky, made opportunistic by her early impoverishment, schemes to improve their standing. But when Rawdon's debts threaten to leave them penniless, Becky accepts help from the wealthy Marquis of Steyne (Byrne) and soon discovers that all of her calculating nature is no match for his.
It's quite difficult for a feature film to detail the depth of a book like 'Vanity Fair' and Nair's film only ever brushes the surface. The main fault lies with Julian Fellowes' screenplay, as key explanatory scenes are left out – Becky and Rawdon's secret marriage in particular – and other elements are glossed over extremely quickly, such as the pivotal Battle of Waterloo. The sense of time is skewed also, with the earlier scenes seeming to take place in a much longer space of time than they actually do.
Witherspoon isn't entirely convincing as the materialistic Becky, who's portrayed as far more conniving in the book. Looking at her often reminds you of her 'Legally Blonde' role, but there are rare moments where she really excels, mainly in the scenes involving Rawdon, nicely played by James Purefoy. Rhys Ifans surprises as the noble Dobbin, but good-hearted Amelia's vulnerability, though evident in Garai's pale facial expression, is lacking in her character, making her ill-suited for the role.
There is some witty dialogue though, particularly from Byrne's lecherous Marquis and a few tender scenes involving Becky and Rawdon, but overall the movie doesn't do Thackeray's tale of social morality the justice it deserves.