She scored a hit with romantic yarn Monsoon Wedding, but director Mira Nair struggled to scale the box office heights with her adaptation of William Thackeray's Vanity Fair. Reese Witherspoon stars as 19th-century social climber Becky Sharp in what turns out to be "a social satire without any bite".
Virtually the entire production team was made up of women as revealed in The Women Behind Vanity Fair. Witherspoon sums up her character as "a modern feminist" while Nair highlights the key themes explored in the book that still resonate in today's go-getting society. Since female filmmakers are such a rarity in the industry, this all makes for a worthy discussion, but sadly there's actually very little in the way of practical insights.
There are more talking heads in Welcome To Vanity Fair. In essence it's just a retread of the plot and its main characters although the supporting cast chip in with a few interesting points. Gabriel Byrne, who plays the villain of the piece, expresses his admiration for Thackeray and his ability to "shine a light on people as social animals" - sort of like a David Attenborough of the London party scene. Meanwhile Bob Hoskins brings some light relief: "I didn't know who Reese Witherspoon was," he claims. "I thought she was English!" To cap it off, there are brief snippets of the shoot (including footage from India), but there's precious little on the lavish production and costume designs, which Nair is famous for.
Cutting The Corset Strings
An alternate ending is included in a 14-minute reel of deleted (but mostly extended) scenes. It aims to resolve Becky's alienation from her son Rawdy (William Melling) with a superfluous bit of speechifying about the power of love. Rhys Ifans also gets to loosen his starched collar as the heart-broken Dobbin, trashing a 19th-century drawing room in contemporary rock'n'roll style. It's clear why these scenes felt out of place, but there really isn't much here to alter your perception of the final cut.
Although this is a flawed adaptation, Mira Nair's thoughtful feature commentary does reflect a genuine affection for the source material. She explains that she fell in love with the book after reading it at 16 and wanted to evoke the otherworldly image of London that Thackeray so masterfully portrays. "He wrote a cinéma verité of his day," she says, "A London that was filthy and smelly, where pigs roamed the streets." Nair describes recreating that vision as an "epic" undertaking and certainly it was no mean feat with a shooting schedule of just 55 days.
Nair's commentary unfortunately provides the only well-rounded look at the making of the film; otherwise this DVD is as shallow as Becky Sharp.