"VANITY FAIR" (2018) Review
When I first heard that the ITV channel and Amazon Studios had plans to adapt William Makepeace Thackeray's 1848 novel, "Vanity Fair", I must admit that I felt no interest in watching the miniseries. After all, I had already seen four other adaptations, including the BBC's 1987 production. And I regard the latter as the best version of Thackeray's novel I had ever seen.
In the end, my curiosity got the best of me and I decided to watch the seven-part miniseries. In a nutshell, "VANITY FAIR" followed the experiences of Rebecca "Becky" Sharp, the social climbing daughter of an English not-so-successful painter and a French dancer in late Georgian England during and after the Napoleonic Wars. The production also told the story of Becky's school friend and daughter of a wealthy merchant, Amelia Sedley. The story begins with both young women leaving Miss Pinkerton’s Academy for Young Ladies. Becky managed to procure a position as governess to Sir Pitt Crawley, a slightly crude yet friendly baronet. Before leaving for her new position, Becky visits Amelia's family. She tries to seduce Jos Sedley, Amelia's wealthy brother and East India Company civil servant. Unfortunately George Osborne, a friend of Jos and son of another wealthy merchant, puts a stop to the budding romance.
While working for the Crawleys, Becky meets and falls in love with Sir Pitt’s younger son, Captain Rawdon Crawley. When Sir Pitt proposes marriage to Becky, she shocks the family with news of her secret marriage to Rawdon. The couple becomes ostracized and ends up living in London on Rawdon’s military pay and gambling winnings. They also become reacquainted with Amelia Sedley, who has her own problems. When her father loses his fortune, George's own father insists that he dump Amelia and marry a Jamaican heiress. George refuses to do so and thanks to his friend William Dobbin's urging, marries Amelia. Mr. Osborne ends up disinheriting George. However, the romantic lives of Becky and Amelia take a backseat when history overtakes them and their husbands with the return of Napoleon Bonaparte.
I wish I could say that the 2018 miniseries was the best adaptation of Thackery's novel I had seen. But it is not. The production had its . . . flaws. One, I disliked its use of the song "All Along the Watchtower" in each episode's opening credits and other rock and pop tunes during the episodes' closing credits. They felt so out of place in the miniseries' production. Yes, I realize that a growing number of period dramas have doing the same. And quite frankly, I detest it. This scenario barely worked in the 2006 movie, "MARIE ANTOINETTE". Now, this use of pop tunes in period dramas strike me as awkward, ham-fisted, unoriginal and lazy.
I also noticed that producer and screenwriter Gwyneth Hughes threw out the younger Pitt Crawley character (Becky's brother-in-law), kept the Bute Crawley character and transformed him from Becky Sharp's weak and unlikable uncle-in-law into her brother-in-law. Hughes did the same with the Lady Jane Crawley and Martha Crawley characters. She tossed aside the Lady Jane character and transformed Martha from Becky's aunt-in-law to sister-in-law. Frankly, I did not care for this. I just could not see characters like Bute and Martha suddenly become sympathetic guardians for Becky and Rawdon's son in the end. It just did not work for me. I have one last problem with "VANITY FAIR", but I will get to it later.
I may not regard "VANITY FAIR" as the best adaptation of Thackery's novel, I cannot deny that it is first-rate. Gwyneth Hughes and director James Strong did an excellent job of bringing the 1848 novel to life on the television screen. Because this adaptation was conveyed in seven episodes, both Hughes and Strong were given the opportunity retell Thackery's saga without taking too many shortcuts. The miniseries replayed Becky Sharp's experiences with the Sedley family, George Osbourne, and the Crawley family in great detail. I was especially impressed by the miniseries' recount of Becky and Amelia's experiences during the Waterloo campaign - which is the story's true high point, as far as I am concerned. Also, this adaptation had conveyed George's experiences during Waterloo with more detail than any other adaptation I have seen.
Aside from the Waterloo sequence, there were other scenes that greatly impressed me. I really enjoyed those scenes that featured the famous Duchess of Richmond's ball in the fourth episode, "In Which Becky Joins Her Regiment"; Becky's attempts to woo Jos Sedley in the first episode, "Miss Sharp In The Presence Of The Enemy"; the revelation of Becky's marriage to Rawdon Crawley in "A Quarrel About An Heiress"; and her revelation to Amelia about the truth regarding George in the final episode, "Endings and Beginnings". There were people who were put off that the series did not end exactly how the novel did - namely the death of Jos, with whom Becky had hooked up in the end. I have to be honest . . . that did not bother me. However, I was amused that Becky's last line in the miniseries seemed to hint that Jos' death might be a possibility in the near future.
The production values for "VANITY FAIR" struck me as quite beautiful. I thought Anna Pritchard's production designs did an excellent job in re-creating both London, the English countryside, Belgium, Germany, India and West Africa between the Regency era and the early 1830s. Not only did I find the miniseries' production values beautiful, but also Ed Rutherford's cinematography. His images struck me as not only beautiful, but sharp and colorful. I would not say that Lucinda Wright and Suzie Harman's costume designs blew my mind. But I cannot deny that I found them rather attractive and serviceable for the narrative's setting.
One of the production's real virtues proved to be a very talented cast. "VANITY FAIR" featured some solid performances from it supporting players. Well . . . I would say more than solid. I found the performances of Robert Pugh, Peter Wight, Suranne Jones, Claire Skinner, Mathew Baynton, Sian Clifford, Monica Dolan, and Elizabeth Berrington to be more than solid. In fact, I would say they gave excellent performances. But they were not alone.
Michael Palin, whom I have not seen in a movie or television production in years, gave an amusing narration in each episode as the story's author William Makepeace Thackeray. Ellie Kendrick gave a very poignant performance as Jane Osborne, who seemed to be caught between her loyalty to her bitter father and her long-suffering sister-in-law. Simon Beale Russell gave a superb, yet ambiguous portrayal of the warm and indulgent John Sedley, who also had a habit of infantilizing his family. Frances de la Tour was deliciously hilarious and entertaining as Becky Sharp's aunt-in-law and benefactress Lady Matilda Crawley. I could also say the same about Martin Clunes, who gave a very funny performance as the crude, yet lively Sir Pitt Crawley. One last funny performance came from David Fynn, who gave an excellent portrayal of the vain, yet clumsy civil servant, Jos Sedley. Anthony Head gave a skillful performance as the cynical and debauched Lord Styne. I thought Charlie Rowe was superb as the self-involved and arrogant George Osborne. Rowe, whom I recalled as a child actor, practically oozed charm, arrogance and a false sense of superiority in his performance as the shallow George.
I have only seen Johnny Flynn in two roles - including the role of William Dobbin in this production. After seeing "VANITY FAIR", it seemed that the William Dobbin role seemed tailored fit for him. He gave an excellent performance as the stalwart Army officer who endured years of unrequited love toward Amelia Sedley. Tom Bateman was equally excellent as the charming, yet slightly dense Rawdon Crawley. At first, I thought Bateman would portray Rawdon as this dashing, yet self-confident Army officer. But thanks to his performance, the actor gradually revealed that underneath all that glamour and dash was a man who was not as intelligent as he originally seemed to be. Amelia Sedley has never been a favorite character of mine. Her intense worship of the shallow George has always struck me as irritating. Thanks to Claudia Jessie's excellent performance, I not only saw Amelia as irritating as usual, but also sympathetic for once.
Television critics had lavished a great deal of praise upon Olivia Cooke as the sharp-witted and manipulative Becky Sharp. In fact, many have labeled her performance as one of the best versions of that character. And honestly? I have to agree. Cooke was more than superb . . . she was triumphant as the cynical governess who used her charms and wit in an attempt to climb the social ladder of late Georgian Britain. I would not claim that Cooke was the best on-screen Becky I have seen, but she was certainly one of the better ones. I have only one minor complaint - I found her portrayal of Becky as a poor parent to her only son rather strident. Becky has always struck me as a cold mother to Rawdon Junior. But instead of cold, Cooke's Becky seemed to scream in anger every time she was near the boy. I found this heavy-handed and I suspect the real perpetrator behind this was either screenwriter Gwyneth Hughes or director James Strong.
I have a few complaints about "VANITY FAIR". I will not deny it. But I also cannot deny that despite its few flaws, I thought it was an excellent adaptation of William Makepeace Thackeray's novel. Actually, I believe it is one of the better adaptations. "VANITY FAIR" is also one of the best period dramas I have seen from British television in a LONG TIME. And I mean a long time. Most period dramas I have seen in the past decade were either mediocre or somewhere between mediocre and excellent. "VANITY FAIR" is one of the first that has led me to really take notice in years. And I have to credit Gwyneth Hughes' writing, James Strong's direction and especially the superb performances from a first-rate cast led by Olivia Cooke. It would be nice to see more period dramas of this quality in the near future.