• Vanity Fair (2004) (SBS Movies)Source: SBS Movies

Whatever you think of Reese Witherspoon?s filmography since her breakthrough star role in Election (1999), there is absolutely no doubt whatsoever over her ability to carry a film. The technically proficient actress does it once again in Vanity Fair, donning a corset and - an ambitious character - for the adaptation William Makepeace Thackeray?s much-loved historic novel.It is the early 1800s. Napoleon and England are about to go to war as we meet the grown Becky Sharp (Reese Witherspoon). Hers is the story of a social climber that begins as she graduates from governess school, where she was taken in as an orphaned toddler. Becky is from the wrong side of the tracks but that doesn?t stop her from marrying into the well to-do Crawley family in a time when women especially were forbidden to cross classes. The story takes Becky from poverty, a social outcast and rural England, to riches, society London, India and back again. Bob Hoskins (Mona Lisa), Eileen Atkins (Gosford Park), James Purefoy (A Knight?s Tale), Rhys Ifans (Notting Hill) and Gabriel Byrne (Spider) play some of the key figures Becky encounters on her way up ? and down ? the social ladder. Vanity Fair is Indian director Mira Nair?s sixth dramatic feature, her next after the resounding success of the warm family drama Monsoon Wedding (2001). Nair attempts to bring a ?cross-cultural? point-of-view to the story - after all, in addition to being a tableaux on the lives of British upper class characters, Vanity Fair was an overt look at imperialist England and its colonialist presence in India. Nair and her writers (one of whom is Gosford Park?s Julian Fellowes), present a ?blonde? film by comparison, the Indian touches brought to bear on the story more cosmetic than much else. (The Moulin Rouge ?Bollywood factor? is at work). Vanity Fair then is more a romp, very much a Hollywood version of Thackeray?s 900-page strong novel, not the long hard look at an ambitious, proto-feminist type figure Nair had in mind. Which is fine, but still, Vanity Fair is kind of a missed opportunity for a more compelling film version of the story. Especially if you hold it up to Mansfield Park (1999) and The House of Mirth (2000), two other recent film adaptations of literary classics with similar story lines, class backdrops and impoverished-and-progressive heroines at their core. But what really irks me is that, post-Election, I am still waiting for Reese Witherspoon to be in a film that matches her formidable talent. Let?s hope that at least isn?t too far away?