“Vanity Fair” puts a modern flair on a dusty classic

Vanity Fair Reese Witherspoon in Vanity Fair (Focus Features)

Every month, we at The Spool select a filmmaker to explore in greater depth — their themes, their deeper concerns, how their works chart the history of cinema, and the filmmaker’s own biography. For January, we look back at the multi-faceted career of Indian-American filmmaker Mira Nair, whose textured works expertly thread social, cultural, and narrative borders. Read the rest of our coverage here.

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Mira Nair’s 2004 adaptation of Vanity Fair opens with our famous heroine, Becky Sharp, as a young child tearfully watching her father sell off a portrait of her deceased mother. The portrait, a dark Gainsborough-esque profile with its sut-colored background, dusty white skin, and faintly rosy cheeks, means so much for young Becky, and us in Nair’s audience. As the camera tracks at child-height, watching the portrait leave the shop, Becky loses the last connection to a lineage that will both help and hinder her social mobility. 

For us, Nair is showing the door to dusty old adaptations and preconceptions of Vanity Fair. We are losing our own connection to the lineage of Vanity Fair on screen. Out go the drab, muted, what Nair calls “museum pieces” and in crashes a world of color, colonialism, and the contemporary. So revelatory was this collision that it changed our view of Vanity Fair forever, for better and worse.

Adapted from the serial novel of the same name by William Makepeace Thackeray published between 1847 and 1848, Vanity Fair follows the trials and travails of Becky Sharp as she uses her mind and means to move about in English society in the early 1800s, when Napoleon was shaking Europe and exploits from the colonies were reaching England in more mass consumable quantities for the first time. 

Becky’s journey from orphan to governess to the middle class is not a linear one and spans many decades. Marriages are matched and broken. Friendships and loyalties are tested through war and scandal. Death comes to many. 

The journey of Vanity Fair is the journey Becky’s resilience through a life of her own dismaking. Most visual retellings take the ambivalence towards Becky for her so-called manipulations and scheming as the point of the text. Nevertheless, while still managing to find a multiplicity of points of social satire inherent within the original text, Nair offers up a massively more sympathetic view of Becky than previous versions. 

For us, Nair is showing the door to dusty old adaptations and preconceptions of Vanity Fair.

And this is extremely important when you have Reese Witherspoon as your lead. In 2004, riding the pink waves of Legally Blonde 2 (2003), Witherspoon’s persona was The-Blonde-with-Brains-and-Heart, and it would have been extremely difficult to make her unlikeable. This is especially true given she’s noticeably throughout the film. Nair encouraged this to exude Becky Sharp’s “womanliness and luminosity.” But if anything Witherspoon is too consistently nice and delicate. In a 2h30min picture, her Becky Sharpe can get dull because things only happen to her not because of her. When the repercussions of her actions confront her in the end, it’s like they are kicking a very pregnant well dressed puppy.

This is useful for the feminist project Nair details in the Behind The Scenes documentary The Women of Vanity Fair available on the DVD, because it removes sexist judgements about a headstrong female character and places more of the blame for Becky’s pain on patriarchal society. But this also renders Becky more one dimensional. The heroine at the end of Thackeray’s novel finds love, yes, but she also takes ownership of the consequences from her actions and dares to live self-assuredly amongst the “good” society of her scornful former friends. In Nair’s version she rides into exotic India on an elephant, the events of her life merely putting her in the right place at the right time.

This ending in India works with Nair’s goals on two fronts. Firstly, it’s tidy. Thackeray’s original ending requires a lot more time spent with Becky and her social circle, but Nair’s film removes so much in order to turn the episodic 700-page tome into a singular feature film. This causes awkward bits of plot-throttling with little time spent in each step of Becky’s life. We barely have time to understand her intentions, let alone those of her friends. Nair’s ending collects all these jumbled plot pieces and tries to contain them with a pretty bow. It’s a quaint and vibrant ending, but it doesn’t quite satisfy on a narrative level. 

But more importantly, this ending is the concluding image of Nair’s (post?)colonial critique. The brilliance of Nair’s vision is how she takes the images, references, and suggestions of India latent in the original text and brings them to the ultimate fore. Thackeray, himself born in India (though in a much different capacity than Mira Nair), laced an orientalism throughout his work to “flavor” it with adventure and exoticism. Becky’s untrustworthy independence is first signaled by her interest and indulgence in the flavors and colors of India. Until 2004, all previous film versions have embraced and replicated this orientalism.

Nair’s adaptation explodes this criticism to the cinematic whole. By infusing every visual and soundscape with Indian textures, the critique becomes not of Becky, but of England as a whole. At the time Vanity Fair is set England was defining its independence on the world stage through its colonialism of India. If we are to be suspicious of Becky’s motives, Nair invites us to be doubly suspicious of England’s. 

It’s no longer just Becky, her whole world is filled with people using the harvests from the colonies to mark their wealth, class, and culture both with and against it. If Becky and her younger generation are “embracing” the new “riches” from India, the older generation is rejecting it with equal revulsion. Either way, Nair’s version eloquently highlights how the English at the turn of the 19th century was fully embracing colonialism as a fundamental part of their identity.

There were some white folks involved in the film that didn’t quite understand the complexity of what Mira Nair was trying to do. Behind the scenes documentaries for the DVD have producer Donna Gigliotti talking about Nair’s version strictly in colonial cliche terms of bringing “flavor” and “spice,” coding her conception of Nair’s exoticism as “colorful.” Even Witherspoon can’t help but shift into Romantic Anthropologist when talking about her observations of the colors and liveliness of India and Nair “in her element” while filming the ending.

Thankfully there isn’t much to this ending otherwise it risks ruining Nair’s project. After all this visual, audio, and narrative layering to have the white heroine ride into India welcomed by smiling and dancing people in the street doesn’t feel like it has the same critical eyes as the rest of the film. It shows that India is now more Vanity Fair than it has ever been, but it doesn’t trouble Becky’s acceptance or new position in India within the vanguard of classical British colonialism in the country. This ending unfortunately gives people an out. It doesn’t underline the critique so people can relax read this adaptation as mere Romance rather than anything sharp and ignoring the larger point Nair makes with this version.

And indeed a lot of people seem to have. Gwyneth Hughes’ 2018 adaptation ups the color and sensuality, clearly inspired by Nair, since all other cinematic versions embrace a dark and dusty aesthetic like the painting which opens Nair’s film to echo Thackeray’s original satire on the grotesquery of English society. Hughes’ version uses color and more overt sensuality to signal an unfounded feminist perspective that reverts back to previous problems of using India as a tool to set Becky apart. Nair’s use of color was so much more than making Vanity Fair feel contemporary.

Though Mira Nair had to cut so much of the original story to fit it into a film, she was able to draw out new elements that no other cinematic versions were able to do before or since. In doing so, she shows the wondrous possibilities of postcolonial adaptation. 

Freed colonial subjects bring an incisive eye to how white society from top to down is constructed around and by colonialism. When they turn this eye on The Western Canon, they can reveal the unacknowledged flaws in its texts and challenge us, if we must continue to adapt these texts, to do so radically. Mira Nair’s Vanity Fair reminds us it’s time to sell on those musty old paintings we’ve been clinging to, because something much more interesting awaits.

Vanity Fair Trailer:

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