12 March 2011

vanitas vanitatum: addendum

After re-reading Vanity Fair, I had a yen to see some of the films based on the novel. The Masterpiece Theater version starring Susan Hampshire that first led me to read the book, when I was 12 or so, is not currently available, which is too bad, because I have fond memories of it. (Though maybe then it’s just as well I can’t see it again.) There’s a later BBC adaptation that I didn’t see and decided was too many episodes for now. There’s apparently a Myrna Loy vehicle from the 1930s that also isn’t currently available. So I ended up with Becky Sharp, a Miriam Hopkins film from 1935, and the 2004 Reese Witherspoon Vanity Fair, directed by Mira Nair.

The 1935 film is often mentioned in film histories as the first feature-length use of the three-strip Technicolor process. Though that will always be its major claim to fame, it’s not a bad movie: not exactly faithful to the book, but faithful to the spirit of the book, it moves along at a rapid clip (coming in at under 90 minutes). It is bright and loud, though it’s difficult to say what it would look and sound like in a decent print, which doesn’t seem to be available. The loudness may be due to its origin as a stage play; the actors are clearly speaking to the back of the balcony. Given director Rouben Mamoulian’s background, I was expecting something more daringly stylish, or at least more "cinematic," but there's a certain charm to seeing what is essentially a filmed play of another era. What we have here is raucous and entertaining enough, like a Thomas Rowlandson caricature of the book.

It may have looked comparatively good because I saw it after the Mira Nair film, which is an hour longer, has some visually pretty moments, and is almost deliriously bad, except that makes it sound more entertaining than it is. I suspect in this case the filmmakers were simply not sophisticated enough to understand the original material, though they also appear to think they’re smarter than Thackeray. They’re not. I offer the following remarks as a warning to any student who thinks he or she can get out of the assigned reading by watching the movie.

Things are botched right from the start, when Becky herself requests the copy of Johnson’s Dictionary which she heaves out the carriage window. In the novel, the headmistress’s mousy sister, out of kindness and courtesy, compels her sister to honor Becky with the usual parting gift. So it's a complex and shocking moment when Becky throws the book back, and here it's reduced to simple and vindictive rudeness – it should be obvious that the comedy doesn't work if the gesture is planned instead of spontaneous, and eliminating the sister means eliminating some of the complexity in how the world perceives Becky. . . . actually, the movie goes wrong even before then. They’ve added a little prologue in which Lord Steyne has dropped by the atelier of Becky’s father (who has been upgraded to a talented painter of the sort collected by discerning aristocrats), where he purchases a portrait of Becky’s late mother. The portrait is called Innocence Betrayed but they may just as well have called it Rosebud, since it's offered as the key to "understanding" Becky.

Not that there's much to understand, since Movie Becky is stripped of the complexity of Novel Becky; she loses her seductiveness, her manipulativeness, and also her appealing good-humor and sense of reality (in short, everything that made Becky Sharp an instant and permanently memorable sensation). We get a self-pitying, humorless, and rather dull woman, who is also considered notorious, for reasons not made entirely clear but which seem to have something to do with her low birth (though that doesn't stop Movie Becky from making snide remarks to George Osborne about his grandfather in trade). In scene after scene, she is shown as hard-working and conscientious (she makes an admirable governess!), though constantly kept down by the snobbery of the shallow monsters who make up the society she is, inexplicably, intent on joining.

In this version, Jos Sedley isn’t kept from proposing by his drunkenness at Vauxhall Gardens; it is purely because of George Osborne’s snide remarks about the possibility of a future sister-in-law who is merely a governess. (Osborne is Jonathan Rhys-Myers, whose career seems based on his ability to look pretty while sneering.) I’ll just say right now that the whole cast, including Reese Witherspoon, who was brilliant as a spiritual descendant of Becky in Election, deserves better, though I wonder if actors are evolving into a species that is too good-looking to represent us: Dobbin (Rhys Ifans) is handsomer than he should be, Jos (Tony Maudsley) is not nearly fat and vain enough, and Lord Steyne (Gabriel Byrne) is too young and darkly handsome.

We get lots of prettiness, but not much in the way of a coherent and plausible picture of society; the same women who discuss how strictly controlled their lives are by etiquette also feel free to hike their skirts above their ankles and wade through a pond in a public garden, and an aristocrat who has just dressed and performed for her husband’s guests as a nautch girl (the movie’s term) not only then insists on the importance of proper social precedence, she does so by contradicting the King himself. Nothing here makes a whole lot of sense.

During the Waterloo scenes, while Novel Becky drove a very hard bargain for her horses, gleefully shafting the nobs who had snubbed her and securing her immediate financial future with some deft extortion, Movie Becky gives the horses to one of the aristocratic families in exchange for nothing more than a seat in their carriage as they flee the city. The wife objects to having her and the husband points out that that’s the price they pay for the horses. “Does no one care for me for myself?” Becky cries out. Seriously, they have her say that. Out loud! For grimly narcissistic Movie Becky, even the Battle of Waterloo is but another occasion for self-pity.

But she then gives up even her seat in the carriage to stay with the pregnant and hysterical Amelia, whom she lectures in a stern but kindly way about the pluck necessary for both of them, as soldiers’ wives and future mothers. So she’s received nothing for her horses, except the consolation of helping her dear friend in need. She’s like Mother Teresa in an Empire-waist gown. Note to the film-makers: the original version is about the conflict between inherited privilege and the rising commercial power of the middle class, especially as exacerbated by war. Also, it is dramatic and very funny, unlike your flabby substitute.

Not only is this Becky devoted to the memory of her mother, there is no indication that there’s any hostility or even tension between her and her own child, which is a major theme in the novel. I guess the prospect of a woman who dislikes her own child is too shocking for 21st century eyes. How the Victorians could mock our sentimentality! And though we get to see Becky and Rawdon (James Purefoy) naked in bed together, the Victorians could also mock our naive view of sexual politics, since worldly-wise Becky seems remarkably unaware that Lord Steyne might try to take advantage of her in that way. He does so as she hears that Rawdon has been arrested for debt. She desperately struggles to go save her beloved Rawdon, while also fighting off the wicked unwanted advances of Steyne – seriously, they play it this way. I guess if you have a massive sense of entitlement you think cynical aristocrats will pay off your enormous debts merely for the pleasure of pleasing you. Rawdon, released by his sister-in-law, walks in on them at that point, and, just as in the novel, Becky proclaims her innocence: only this time, damned if she isn’t actually innocent!

And as in the novel, Rawdon breaks open her box and finds the thousand pound note, but there’s no indication how it got there, or who gave it to her, and no hint that she wouldn’t have been willing to give it up to redeem him. In fact, given the film’s portrayal of Rawdon as a feckless gambler, it might simply have been tucked away as a prudent woman’s attempt to keep her family from starvation. Movie Becky has already been rather snappish and sullen about the creditors. She may be living on nothing a year, but with a very modern sense of entitlement, she feels she doesn't have to like it.

Movie Becky is so consistently portrayed as a well-meaning and sincere victim that for a moment, hoping that the film-makers had at some point read the actual novel, I thought maybe they were doing some sort of clever meta-story thing, in which we find out that what we’ve been seeing is Becky telling us her own story, manipulating and seducing us into believing and helping her. No, manipulation and seduction are beyond this Becky, and cynicism and irony are beyond the film-makers, who manage to turn Becky’s marriage to Jos into a happy ending. After a few scenes perfunctorily wrapping up the Dobbin/Amelia story, Becky is left alone in Baden-Baden, clearly wistful that true love continues to elude her. Who should reappear but Jos Sedley, who still loves her, and whisks her off to India (much as the Micawbers all take off for Australia at the end of David Copperfield – how handy the colonies are!).

I realized when re-reading the novel that there is in fact quite a lot of India in it, but mostly as a source of income. There’s also quite a lot of Evangelical religion, which makes no appearance at all in the movie, unless that is what they’re trying to signify by having Pitt Crawley chanting grace a couple of times before his father hushes him. But low-church pieties are less decorative than saffron robes, and director Nair throughout has grabbed eagerly at any excuse to feature India; clearly it was a relief to her to find material she could figure out how to handle, at least in a decorative way. Our happy pair ride off contentedly on an elephant, surrounded by a jubilant crowd of Indians, who seem surprisingly enthusiastic about the marriage of this minor functionary of the British East India Office and the memsahib. "How beautiful it all is!" murmurs little Becky, happy at last. How fortunate that none of the dancing natives realize that the British presence in India might be exploitative! How strange that a movie from 2004 has to substitute candy-colored make-believe for the sophistication and political awareness of a novel from 1848!

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