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The Return of the Native

September 2004
The Return of the Native

A Review of Mira Nair's Vanity Fair

By Murali Kamma

Filmgoers who may not particularly wish to see yet another period piece or costume drama set in 19th-century Britain ? a la Masterpiece Theater on PBS ? will be pleasantly surprised by Mira Nair's Vanity Fair. In a way, it has such a contemporary feel that the popular American star, Reese Witherspoon, who inhabited an entirely different cinematic world until now, comes across as an inspired choice for the lead role in this film. And, of course, it greatly helps that she has given a winning performance as Becky Sharp, the plucky but relentlessly ambitious character who is at the center of Thackeray's sweeping novel about pre-Victorian English society.

"Becky is really a very modern character," Witherspoon said in a press release. "She'd been deprived of parents and has no place to go in the world ? yet she manages to succeed. Every success she has in her life is based on her own merit, which is a modern idea for a period story."

At the same time, for those who love watching colorful spectacles, the authenticity of the drama is carefully maintained in all its rich period detail. The film is never static, though, because Nair keeps the story moving at a brisk pace in her intensely visual style. This is perhaps inevitable, since Thackeray's lengthy and convoluted tale has to be covered in a movie that's only 2 hours and 15 minutes long. Nair and Julian Fellowes, the screenwriter who won an Oscar for Gosford Park, have done a good job of adapting the story to an acceptable length, but its tight structure may also pose a challenge to viewers who are not familiar with Thackeray's novel. Almost every scene seems important and one has to follow the movie closely to understand its intricate dynamics. It will certainly help to know at least the outline of the plot.

Many film lovers will be struck by the similarities between Monsoon Wedding and Vanity Fair. In a certain sense, of course, the two films couldn't be more different. Apart from being set in contemporary India, the earlier film has the intimate and jittery style of a home video, although that deceptive approach really conceals an artfully constructed drama. The orchestrated frenzy portrayed in the film, captured by handheld cameras in the Dogme method of filmmaking, accurately reflects the chaotic vitality of Indian weddings.

Vanity Fair unfolds in a more conventional way, but Nair's eye for visual opulence is just as sharp. She seems equally comfortable in 19th-century England as she was in present day Delhi in Monsoon Wedding. Another striking feature of both movies is her nuanced exploration of the class system. Having grown up in India, Nair is thoroughly familiar with it, and here she's particularly good at showing the contrasts between the classes and how they interact with each other. At the center of both films is a theme that Indians know very well: the conflict between tradition and modernity.

Nair's subtle take on the British Empire leads to a satisfying ending in her film. The references to India sprinkled in the movie strongly hint at the exploitive relationship that existed between Britain and India. It becomes increasingly clear how, in the vastly changed English society of early 19th century, a new class of people seeking respectability had become so rich. Thackeray seemed to have understood this relationship quite well, probably because ? as Nair pointed out ? he was an outsider to his own society. Born in Calcutta in 1811, he lived there until he left for England at the age of six. The abrupt separation from India and his mother, who stayed behind for a few more years after his father's death, affected him deeply, and Thackeray always treasured the fond memories of his early childhood.

Julian Fellowes, the screenwriter for Vanity Fair, has commented on Thackeray's deep interest in India and Britain's growing Empire. "He found India particularly intriguing and mysterious, and he was able to suggest that the British were getting in over their heads ? taking on cultures and values that they didn't understand ? without ever being either preachy or plodding about it," Fellowes noted. "This element of the book has been lost in past adaptations; Mira caught it, and used it to give the film glamour."

In Becky Sharp, so convincingly played by Witherspoon, Thackeray has created a complex character with both flaws and admirable qualities. Very simply, the plot revolves around this impoverished orphan's attempts to make something of her life and gain a foothold in high London society. Given the circumstances of her life and the age she lives in, Becky pays a steep price for her presumptuous behavior. Amelia, her best friend, and Amelia's brother Jos (the Collector of Boggley Wallah in India) come from a very different family background. The contrasting personalities of all the principal characters and their turbulent relationships drive the plot, which is also influenced by outside events like Britain's colonial expansion and the Napoleonic Wars. The decisive Battle of Waterloo, in particular, acts as a turning point in the saga.

Although the plot can sometimes resemble a soap opera or a Bollywood melodrama, Thackeray's fully rounded characters and Nair's sophisticated approach give the movie a certain depth and seriousness. A few fleeting scenes set in India, inserted unobtrusively, are accompanied by music that was composed by the team of Shankar, Ehsaan & Loy. Bob Hoskins, Eileen Atkins, Jim Broadbent, and Jonathan Rhys Meyers (from Bend It Like Beckham) also have roles in the movie.

Unlike some other well-known authors of his era, Thackeray liked to deal in ambiguity, and in this enduring novel ? which he interestingly subtitled "A Novel Without A Hero" ? there is a suggestion of wrongdoing on Becky's part at the end. In a dramatic twist, however, Nair changes that and concludes the movie on a happier note. Perhaps this ending emphasizes her ?reverse gaze' as an Eastern filmmaker. As Witherspoon observes, "I thought she (Nair) had such an amazing take on this material, wanting to explore the roots of Indian culture in English society." In Nair's version, Becky turns her back on the snobbish English society that had so viciously rejected her to start a new life in India, where she receives a warm welcome. Potential viewers of the film may not wish to know further details. In any case, even though Thackeray's novel doesn't have a hero, as he noted, Nair's film does have a genuine heroine in Becky Sharp. Nair has remarked that she likes to jokingly refer to Vanity Fair as The Return of the Native. This second title, too, would have been entirely appropriate for her elegant movie.

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