Decades ago, most high school curricula included the novel “Vanity Fair” as required reading. I did not read the novel which was published by English author William Makepeace Thackeray in 1848. It is now considered a classic. I was thrilled to be able to view the screen version which kept me entranced for two hours.
Reese Witherspoon Wikimedia
The story begins in London in the year 1802. Becky Sharp (Reese Witherspoon) is the daughter of an alcoholic painter, and her mother was an opera singer who had already passed away. The opening scenes depicted a visitor to their humble quarters, the Marquess of Steyne (Gabriel Byrne), who wanted to purchase one of Francis Sharp’s paintings. His eyes fell on a portrait of Becky’s mother, for which he was willing to pay 4 guineas. Becky insisted that the painting was worth 10 guineas because she did not want to part with her mother’s likeness. The Marquess agreed to pay 10 guineas and walked away with it.
After the death of her father, Becky Sharp was taken into Miss Pinkerton’s Academy for Young Ladies where she was befriended by Amelia Sedley (Romola Garai) who was the only person who cared to associate with Becky, who had lofty airs not consistent with her state in life.
Gabriel Byrne - Wikimedia
An Assignment as Governess
After her extensive formation at Miss Pinkerton’s, Becky obtained a position as a governess. On the way to her new assignment, she was invited to stop off at Amelia Sedley’s home where she met Amelia’s brother Joseph (Tom Maudsley) who was a soldier on leave from his duties in India. Joseph was immediately smitten by Becky, who sang for the family who remarked that she had the voice of an angel. Amelia also introduced Becky to her boyfriend, Captain George Osborne (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), and George’s friend, Captain William Dobbin (Rhys Ifans), who also cared deeply for Amelia. George discouraged Joseph from pursuing Becky, since she was a commoner who would not be an asset to the family’s heritage. Upon leaving, Becky gave Amelia one of her father’s paintings.
She then proceeded to Queen’s Crawley, the home of the baron, Sir Pitt Crawley (Bob Hoskins) where she was scheduled to serve as a governess to the two young daughters of the baron. Upon reaching the home, Becky mistook the baron for a servant because of his down-and-out appearance.
Becky was introduced to Sir Pitt’s younger son, Rawdon (James Purefoy), a handsome soldier, and the baron’s sister, Aunt Matilde, whose considerable fortune was slated go to her nephew Rawdon. Sir Pitt’s older son, who was also named Pitt (Douglas Hodge), was planning to marry Lady Jane Sheepshank. Aunt Matilde was quite taken with Becky, who was fluent in French, music, and drawing, and spirited her away from Queen’s Crawley to live with her in London. Becky spotted Aunt Matilde’s next-door neighbor who happened to be the Marquess of Steyne.
James Purefoy - Wikimedia
Amelia Became Engaged
Becky received a letter from her friend Amelia Sedley who informed her that she was engaged to marry George Osborne. The Sedley family invited Becky over and she was accompanied by Rawdon Crawley, who was quietly pursuing Becky. Rawdon, who was adept at card-playing and other forms of gambling, invited George Osborne to play cards, and managed to win all the money George had on his person that evening.
When Sir Pitt Crawley’s wife passed away, he begged Becky to come back to Queen’s Castle. He proposed to her and said she could come back as Mrs. Crawley. She answered “Would you not love me as a daughter as well?” She and Rawdon had secretly married. Aunt Matilde fainted and took Rawdon out of her will.
Amelia was Left Penniless
Becky revealed that she was pregnant, which raised their hopes that Aunt Matilde would change her mind about leaving her money to Rawdon. Meanwhile, Amelia Sedley’s father lost his fortune and she was obliged to sell off many of her assets at auction. One piece was the painting that Becky gave Amelia from her father’s collection. The Marquess of Steyne made the winning bid for the painting. Captain Dobbin bought Amelia’s piano and brought it to her. She thought it was a gift from George. George and Amelia were married but Mr. Osborne (Jim Broadbent) disinherited his son because he had another lady in mind for George.
Romola Garai - Wikimedia
The Men Must Go Off to War
The young men were informed that they were on the brink of war. They were ordered to go to Belgium the next week. It was the year 1915. Becky and Amelia went to Brussels, Belgium to keep each other company.
At a farewell dance, George Osborne asked Becky to dance while leaving his wife Amelia alone on the sidelines. Amelia left the party, disturbed at the turn of events. Again, Rawdon won at the card game.
At home Rawdon gave Becky the wad of money he won so that she could go back to London. He told her, before he went off to war, how much she was loved.
Amelia learned that she, too, was pregnant. She told Becky “If you stole my last evening with George, I shall never forgive you.”
George Was Killed in the War
When the bagpipes sounded, it meant Victory. But George died in the war, and Amelia was left a pauper. Captain Dobbin, who had always loved Amelia, told her he would resign his commission if she asked him. She did not. Dobbin had a message for Mr. Osborne from his son George, asking for his forgiveness. Mr. Osborne changed his mind, and provided for Amelia and her son, who was also named George, and came to live with his grandfather.
Jim Broadbent - Wikimedia
Rawdon is Deeply in Debt
Becky’s son was born, and Rawdon was safely back from the war. Mr. Moss arrived at their door, demanding repayment of the money that Rawdon owed to him. When Rawdon could not comply, Moss pulled all of their furniture out to the curb. The Marquess of Steyne took note of this and paid all of their bills, and returned the furniture to Becky and Rawdon. He learned that Becky was Francis Sharp’s daughter, and remarked to her that her father had a great talent for painting. He invited Becky to come to his home where she sang for his wife and daughter and their guests. All of the women at the party ignored her.
The Marquess of Steyne arranged for Becky’s son to go away to school. He put on a mystery performance where one of the Belly Dancers was Becky. Rawdon was there and not happy about it. Becky spied the painting of her mother in the Marquess’ house.
Rawdon Goes to Debtor’s Prison
Rawdon was carried off to debtor’s prison and his sister-in-law Jane paid off his debts. Rawdon came upon Becky and the Marquess in a compromising position and fought with the Marquess. He found a thousand pound note in Becky’s desk drawer which she might have used to free him from prison. He left her, and Jane and his brother Pitt took care of young Rawdon.
Rhys Ifans - Wikimedia
Amelia Learns the Truth
Amelia, who had clung to the love of her dead husband, learned from Becky’s note from George those many years ago that he would have left her for Becky if Becky had agreed to it. She rushed to Captain Dobbin who had given up on winning her affection.
Twelve Years Later
In Baden, Baden 12 years later, Becky was serving champagne to guests in a restaurant, when a gentleman showed up asking for her. It was Joseph Crawley, on his way back to India. Becky remarked to him: “You know I love to visit new places.”
Thackeray had a gift for making his sub-plots just as intriguing as the main plot in his writings. It was fairly easy to follow the numerous characters who showed up along the way; each had an interesting story to tell. I loved this film and must commend the cast for their superb recreation of this highly lauded tale.
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