Do we really buy Reese Witherspoon in a corset? The answer, surprisingly, is yes. Really? Well, no. Witherspoon's always going to be an American sweetheart, but this adap of William Makepeace Thackeray's satirical novel offers her something of a dream role: a 19th-century equivalent to her brilliant, scheming student in Election.
As ambitious social `mountaineer' Becky Sharp rattles up the rungs of the bourgeois ladder - piggybacking suitors, winning over the aristocracy, hurdling the Napoleonic Wars - Witherspoon proves the bright, charming hub for a gallery of star performances. Bob Hoskins and Jim Broadbent make blunderbuss kindly/callous father figures; James Purefoy relishes the rakish snobbery of Becky's hubby; while Rhys Ifans is forlorn and funny as the hapless Major Dobbin. Even better, though, are Becky's sniping spinster-benefactor Eileen Atkins and Gabriel Byrne's Marquess of Steyne, the dark lord who waits at society's steeple.
Just as she did in Monsoon Wedding, Indian director Mira Nair marshals this ensemble with a deft comic touch and the lashing deliveries of Thackeray's vinegary dialogue are a delight. Splashing the costumes and sets with reams of colour, Nair spices her 19th-century drama with a fresh, modern tang - until she gets carried away. Just wait for the ridiculous Bollywood musical set-piece that sees Witherspoon belly-dancing like some failed Moulin Rouge auditionee. Oh, and it's looong... Long enough to realise that while we're frequently entertained, we're rarely moved.
Cruel intentions power this portrait of a lady - or rather, they should do. But Witherspoon's Becky seems to drift, not drive her way through the film. The real problem? That Nair scrubs out the withering scepticism of Thackeray's `Novel With No Hero' to reclaim Sharp as an uncomfortable New Wave feminist. With her Legally Blonde go-girl persona leaking through the corset, she's less a conniving opportunist than a tragic victim of class. Shame, because in Election, Witherspoon was scheming. She was clever. She was funny. She was - yes - sharp. And so was the film.
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Fantastic casting and period spice lacquer the missteps, but this tale of blonde ambition doesn't have teeth. Call it Vanity Fair-To-Middling.