Wednesday, September 1, 2004

Vanity Fair

Many artists, both filmmakers and writers, are afraid of period-pieces. Struggles over how past eras should be presented often lead to the wrong, phony solutions. Humans have always shared the same obsessions and felt the same emotions. They have always been driven by love and power, and citizens of 19th-century England were no different. Vanity Fair achieves perfection in presenting believable characters delivering believable dialogue; I can’t remember the last time a period-picture was done so well.

The story follows Becky Sharp (Reese Witherspoon), a girl whose parents die at the dawn of her adolescence, leaving her to be raised at a finishing school. Having grown into a lady and finding herself anxious to experience the realities of the world, Becky flees the school with her only friend, Amelia (Romola Garai) and travels to London. After becoming a tutor to the children of the wealthy Sir Pitt Crawley (Bob Hoskins), Becky catches the eye of more than one man. She makes all the right friends and finds herself soaring up the social ladder, causing one character to remark, “I thought her a mere social climber; I see now she’s a mountaineer.”

When Becky begins to “settle down” into a relationship, she learns from experience what matters most in life. All of her acquaintances are trapped by the same rules of high society and everyone struggles with questions of priority. A successful life comes at a terrible price, and what constitutes happiness is constantly under scrutiny. One older gentleman reveals to Becky, “The only thing that matters in life is to love and be loved.” The problem is that Becky’s not fit to love anyone, nor is she capable of giving her love to those who would have it.

While on her quest for success and/or happiness, Becky meets a charming cast of characters. Vanity Fair is based on a famous novel of the same title, and the structure of the story feels like a novel. The film isn’t afraid of presenting a plethora of characters, nor does it hesitate to take its time. There are emotions lurking beneath the witty, razor-sharp dialogue that the novel surely delves deeper into, but enough characterization is given so that the characters feel authentic. There are believable emotions presented, not just formulas.

The set pieces and the costumes are visually lush, bursting at the seams with color and life. All of these elements help reinforce the period, but the film’s true authenticity stems from the look of the city itself. Vanity Fair does a masterful job capturing the truths of everyday life in the 19th century. The camera shows wide, sweeping shots filled with grandiose architecture and elegant clothing, but then remembers to move in close and show the dirty filth of the streets. The film scraps historical stereotypes and goes out of its way to create an authentic representation.

Witherspoon absolutely shines in her performance as a woman confused by a life out of balance. Her accent is so flawless that I never thought about it, and all the subtleties of her performance add up to a great sum. Performances are more than suitable all around, but this is Witherspoon’s show and she delivers a jewel. We begin as mere spectators, but she pulls us closer in record time, making us care about her character. The film is not a suspenseful one, yet the next scene never comes soon enough.

This film left me with no complaints. Vanity Fair presents an engaging story, great characters, memorable dialogue, and beautiful art direction. It doesn’t appeal to any specific audience and is therefore unlikely to be an impressive success financially, but Vanity Fair is one of year’s best films just the same. It’s the kind of movie that stands out and makes us realize what so many others have been missing.

No comments:

Post a Comment