It's not just the tightly strung corsets that induce suffocation in Mira Nair's reworking of William Thackeray's classic novel Vanity Fair. Her humourless direction sucks all the oxygen from the various drawing rooms and banquet halls where this tale of 19th-century social climbing takes place. As the calculating heroine, Reese Witherspoon fails to bridge the gap between ruthless ambition and deep-rooted suffering and just provokes greater sympathy for the jumped-up gentry. The result is a social satire without any bite.
Born into poverty and orphaned at a young age, Becky Sharp (Reese Witherspoon) resolves to infiltrate English society and fulfil dreams of glamorous gowns and posh dinner-dos. She finds employment as governess to the daughters of Sir Pitt Crawley (Bob Hoskins) and ingratiates herself to the girls' wealthy aunt Matilda (Eileen Atkins) who eventually invites her to London.
"WITHERSPOON DOESN'T PULL IT OFF"
Matilda is subsequently outraged when Becky seduces and secretly marries her favourite nephew Rawdon (James Purefoy). She cuts off all social and financial ties with the newlyweds and Becky is left to sniff out an alternative route into the golden circle. Pointing the way is The Marquess of Steyne (Gabriel Byrne), but his assistance comes at a higher cost than she initially anticipates.
Although Becky is grossly manipulative, her undermining treatment of the pompous upper classes - with her double-edged quips and too-cool attitude - gives her a classic rebel appeal in Thackeray's book. Sadly Witherspoon doesn't pull it off, instead pouting and preening her way through the film with an irritating smugness. Similarly, Nair glosses over the subtle intricacies of the story with sumptuous visual flourishes and the occasional musical set piece so that this ultimately feels like a celebration of 19th-century society as opposed to a critique. Like Witherspoon's Becky, this adaptation is rich and seductive on the surface but achingly hollow at the core.