She tried it with mixed results in The Perez Family but with Vanity Fair, Mira Nair has shown she can jump out of her ethnic box and tell a damn good story.
Granted, she had the help of a classic page-turner by W.M. Thackeray and Becky Sharp is one of the most intriguing heroines created in 19th century English literature. Becky is not a shrinking violet. As one character describes her, she is not a social climber, she is a mountaineer. And this is truly one film that is dominated by the heroine. She has her men, but in the end it’s Becky who is the center of the story and Reese Witherspoon pulls it off with panache.
Witherspoon is the only American in a cast of British thespians and she holds her own. Nair commented at a recent screening in San Francisco that she always thought of Becky Sharp as a character whose forthright sassiness was much more American than the traditional Jane Austen-style British heroine. Becky Sharp does not sit around any living room waiting for a Mr. Darcy to call. She hunts them down.
The novel is 900 pages long and even compressed makes for a hefty film. Don’t go out for your popcorn when the intersecting sets of characters are being introduced because then you’ll spend a long time trying to figure out who is who.
Thanks to the success of Monsoon Wedding, Nair has a dream cast with Oscar winners (and nominees) like Jim Broadbent and Bob Hoskins as well other standouts like Eileen Atkins (Gosford Park), Geraldine McEwan (The Magdalene Sisters), Jonathan Rhys Meyers (Bend it Like Beckham) and Gabriel Byrne (In the Name of the Father).
The story of the young English orphan who climbs her way into the very thin upper crust of English society mostly by wit, guile, and charm is in some ways an old-fashioned story about love, money, and the ever-true adage that there is no free lunch. Luckily, Nair eschews any temptation to preserve the story in amber in a sort of Merchant-and-Ivory costume-pic. It’s long and the story does sometimes meander along. After all, it’s a serialized novel that Thackeray strung along. But it’s a delight to watch this veteran ensemble of actors make it a sort of Masterpiece Theater but with oxygen, instead of the smell of naphthalene.
Artistically, it’s a sumptuous film, bathed in gorgeous rich colors. The poetry of Byron and Tennyson gets set to music and rubs shoulders with Javed Akhtar. Yes, there is an Indian sequence set in Jodhpur Fort. But more than that tourism brochure-style scene, Vanity Fair does have all the heat and dust and hot blood of a desi drama. After all, Thackeray was born in Calcutta and it shows.
But from an Indian point of view, what’s more important is, if Vanity Fair clicks, Nair says she will have the clout in Hollywood to push through her next project even though it will have an almost all-desi cast: Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake.