'Vanity Fair': TV Review

Still a good yarn, but far from illuminating or definitive.
12/21/2018

Olivia Cooke's Becky Sharp boosts this by-the-numbers treatment of William Makepeace Thackeray's oft-adapted novel, having its U.S. premiere on Amazon.

With frequently adapted novels and plays, part of what makes them ripe for interpretation is that every artist who latches onto them sees something different in the text.

William Makepeace Thackeray's Vanity Fair is an odd exception. Every few years a writer or director will find Vanity Fair and they'll be excited by basically the same two things: Becky Sharp is a fascinating proto-feminist antiheroine and Thackeray's prose is rambunctious and modern-feeling, not stodgy and dated. Neither of these perspectives is wrong, nor do they require particularly big leaps. They're literally the text of the novel.

But the book isn't, in this day and age, so popular that you could get away with doing, say, "Vanity Fair, only in contemporary Beverly Hills" or "Vanity Fair in space" and have everybody understand what you're doing. So what we're usually left with are superficial adaptations that give the impression the writers think they've cracked some code when what they've done is basically just read Vanity Fair.

Writer Gwyneth Hughes (Five Days) and director James Strong (Broadchurch) are the latest storytellers to fall into this comfortable trap. Their adaptation of Vanity Fair, which aired in the fall on the U.K.'s ITV and premieres this week on Amazon, is a respectful and fundamentally simple reading of the novel. Even stretched to seven episodes, it moves fast and hits some of the right notes. Mostly it offers a juicy, well-played role for leading lady Olivia Cooke.

Of course, not everybody knows Thackeray's novel, and this Vanity Fair is a fine intro for a hugely readable text dubbed "A Novel Without a Hero," and therefore a no-brainer for the antihero landscape of Peak TV.

Cooke plays Becky Sharp, doomed to limited prospects by her suspect parentage, an artist father and an "opera girl" mother. Graduating from Miss Pinkerton's Academy with eternally generous, kind and somewhat wealthy Amelia (Claudia Jessie), Becky faces an apparently dead-end life as a governess, but she's not willing to settle. She's willing, in fact, to do almost anything to improve her station, including flirting with Amelia's dunderheaded brother Jos (David Fynn), her employer Sir Pitt Crawley (Martin Clunes) and his dumb-but-hunky son Rawdon (Tom Bateman).

No matter the circumstance, Becky always has a plan, and as she's a woman outside of her time, nobody in her sphere sees her nefariousness coming. At least not for a while. Amelia, in contrast, lives a life of general comfortable complacency until the fortunes of her father (Simon Russell Beale) change, jeopardizing her long-pending marriage to even wealthier George Osbourne (Charlie Rowe).

The series, like Thackeray's novel, is set up so that readers/viewers initially revere Becky, with her cunning scheming, and feel contempt for easily duped Amelia, but don't be surprised if your sympathies shift a little. What remains consistent is that this is Vanity Fair, "a world where everyone is striving for what is not worth having," as Michael Palin says at the top of each episode in cameos as Thackeray — cameos that would be pointless except for how they mirror some of the book's structuring.

Folks are always "shocked" to discover that Thackeray wrote episodically — Dickens, too, in case you haven't heard! — another of the elements that make Vanity Fair such a logical match for television. Hughes makes the seven installments remarkably tidy, built around steps in Becky's rise-and-fall. Perhaps too tidy? Are episodes repetitiously structured in the translation to TV, or does TV have an inherent tendency toward accentuating the book's repetition? Dunno. Perhaps you just notice the sameness more in this format and the brief and repetitious Palin introductions, which I can't imagine took him longer than six on-set minutes to film, only reinforce the feeling.

If the Oscar-winning 1963 feature adaptation of Tom Jones is perhaps the best example of how to capture a period novel's comic moments most energetically, Strong's approach here is more flat and sitcom-y, which certainly might be his goal. Everything in Vanity Fair is bright and colorful and overlit. Every costume is too starched and too clean.

Everything tends toward wackiness, be it Becky's direct glances into the camera — an attempt at conspiratorial bonding with the audience that features frequently in early episodes and then mostly vanishes — or a device like a character's loud bellowing rippling across the landscape in a series of cuts to disturbed dogs and birds. The early foundation in comedy makes it hard for Strong to change gears in later episodes in which, among other things, the Battle of Waterloo and several key deaths are depicted without ever finding a dramatic punch.

The episodic sitcom structure also extends to the way nearly every early installment is built around the arrival of different guest stars. Strong practically holds for studio audience applause at each cameo, but this just produces minor disappointment at how rarely, no matter how broad the storytelling gets, the guest stars feel adequately used. Anthony Head makes a pleasantly villainous Lord Steyne, one of several men pulled into Becky's sphere, and Frances de la Tour is a fine Lady Crawley, wealthy aunt and potential benefactor to Becky. Too many of the colorful supporting performances just zip by.

For all the pleasure one might hope to get from British acting royalty or near-royalty like Clunes or Beale at work, this Vanity Fair, like all adaptations of the book, hinges on its Becky Sharp. Cooke gives Becky a devious sparkle that carries the series a long way. Freed from the floating American accents imposed on her in Bates Motel, Ready Player One and several other high-profile credits, she's got a sharp — sorry, had to go there — tongue, boasts a fine singing voice and creates the illusion of chemistry with a wide assortment of male co-stars who, for the most part, are playing intentional cyphers.

She becomes less and less convincing as time passes in the show and also as the narrative darkens and the adaptation can't quite bring itself to pass judgment on anything Becky does. It works out for the best because if Becky dwindles in centrality, Jessie is good enough to allow Amelia to pick up the slack, carrying a lot of the emotion that Vanity Fair only half-sells in the closing episodes. I can't say for sure if the series would have more weight if Johnny Flynn weren't so one-note in his square-jawed nobility as Dobbin.

With its opening credits set to a cover of "All Along the Watchtower" and closing credits to versions of pop favorites like "Material Girl," Vanity Fair strains to emphasize its unquestionable contemporary relevance. I just don't know if any of that relevance really comes from Hughes and Strong's adaptation. This is a core story with good bones and these are those bones, decently played by a decent cast. There's nothing more definitive or illuminating than that.

Cast: Olivia Cooke, Claudia Jessie, Tom Bateman, Johnny Flynn, Charlie Rowe, Simon Russell Beale, Anthony Head, Martin Clunes, Frances de la Tour, Michael Palin
Written by: Gwyneth Hughes, from the novel by William Makepeace Thackeray
Director: James Strong
Premieres: Friday (Amazon)