Victorian fiction has often stood accused of proto-Hallmark Card sentimentality, so it's instructive to see what happens when a director gets her hands on a decidedly unsentimental Victorian novel. Lo and behold: she sentimentalizes it. Mira Nair's Vanity Fair is, in fact, an enjoyable and reasonably successful film on its own merits. It looks good, although not ostentatiously so; the supporting players are of high quality throughout, especially Rhys Ifans as Dobbin (suffering manfully), Gabriel Byrne as the Marquess of Steyne (sort of a decayed Byron), and Geraldine McEwan as Lady Southdown (wonderfully squeaky); and there's some good neo-Thackerayan dialogue. Writers Matthew Faulk and Julian Fellowes rightly emphasize the role of Mammon, whether it's the various and sundry Crawleys scheming for an inheritance or Steyne's attempt to "collect" Becky in the same manner as he collected her father's paintings. The plot's rhythm suffers slightly from its picaresque nature, however. Because things tend to happen serially ("and...and...and") rather than logically, the events themselves sometimes lose their weight. Moreover, the characters are all entirely static--something suggested, in fact, by Becky's omnipresent trunk, which from beginning to end carries the initials "RS."
Critics have made much of the additional Indian material. Nair rightly shows us a London that isn't lily-white--there are Chinese sailors, Indian and African servants, and (as in the novel) a West Indian heiress--but she also represents India itself as an object of desire. Becky tells Jos that she is fascinated by all things Indian, with amusing results; there's a big picnic with "Oriental" motifs; the Marquess of Steyne stages a vaguely Indian dance for George IV; Rawdon Crawley and Dobbin wind up in India at various times; and, at the end, Becky comes full circle by going off to India with Jos. There's some back-and-forth between a kind of kitschy orientalism and a sense that India is somehow more real than England. Perhaps it's telling that the film's one truly idyllic family moment is Dobbins' brief glimpse of an Indian couple with their baby. But, to me at least, the Indian material didn't contribute much that was material to the plot; the English characters may be shallow in their appropriations of all things Indian, but, then again, they're shallow all the time.
I haven't talked about the sentimentalism yet, though. The filmmakers desperately want to evade the implications of the novel's famous final lines:
Ah! Vanitas Vanitatum! Which of us is happy in this world? Which of us has his desire? or, having it, is satisfied?--Come children, let us shut up the box and the puppets, for our play is played out.
In the film, the language of puppets and plays is assigned to Steyne, who accurately diagnoses the sheer vacuity of high society. But the film doesn't want to acknowledge the extent of Vanity Fair. It's worth remembering that, in The Pilgrim's Progress, all must pass through Vanity Fair: "Now, as I said, the way to the Celestial City lies just through this town, where the lusty fair is kept; and he that will go to the City, and yet not go through this town, must needs go out of the world." Vanity Fair comprises one vast market--as the filmmakers correctly grasp--in all things of the world, whether material or familial. But none of Thackeray's characters leave "Vanity Fair"; Dobbin comes close, but even he (as Thackeray pointed out in a letter to Robert Bell, reprinted in the Norton Critical Edition) suffers from "vanity" in his misguided passion for Amelia.
By contrast, the film represents friendship and true love as possible escape routes from the sordid world. Becky is genuinely fond of Amelia throughout, and it's significant that Nair doesn't undercut her revelation about George Osborne in the same way that Thackeray does. Similarly, Becky loves Rawdon--although not whole-heartedly, to be sure; to emphasize the point, Nair spins Becky's botched flirtation with Steyne, turning him into a would-be rapist and her into a woman increasingly afraid that she has gotten in over her head. More importantly, Nair allows Dobbin to be understandably frustrated by Amelia's love of a "misty memory," but there's no sign of the far more brutal dialogue from the novel:
"...I know what your heart is capable of: it can cling faithfully to a recollection, and cherish a fancy; but it can't feel such an attachment as mine deserves to mate with, and such as I would have won from a woman more generous than you. No, you are not worthy of the love which I have devoted to you. I knew all along that the prize I had set my life on was not worth the winning; that I was a fool, with fond fancies, too, bartering away my all of truth and ardour against your little feeble remnant of love." (Norton ed., 670)
When Dobbin wins Amelia in the end, he doesn't get much of a prize. In Thackeray's Vanity Fair, the things most desired are usually the things worth the least. The characters can't escape Vanity Fair through love and friendship, precisely because love and friendship are themselves shot through with "vanity." The closest we get to "real" love in the novel is Rawdon's genuine affection for his son and, mostly offstage, Lady Jane's love for little Rawdon and Dobbin's for his daughter Emmy. But Thackeray explores only the first of these at any length, and the father-son relationship promptly deadends with the implosion of the Crawley marriage. (Like Thackeray, Nair makes it clear that Amelia's love for her own son, little Georgy, is a bad case of maternal blindness--as in the novel, Georgy is an obnoxious twit of the first order.) The film, however, wants romantic closure--an "and they lived happily ever after." Thus, we don't end where the novel does, with Becky's afterlife as a "wronged" society matron, but instead with Becky providentially rescued from Baden-Baden and hauled off to India by Jos Sedley. Never mind that the novel implies pretty strongly that Becky has something to do with Jos' death, although even Thackeray admitted in an interview that he wasn't sure of her guilt. (Other moments are softened up as well, like Sir Pitt Crawley's horrible end--here, not particularly horrible.) Thackeray told Robert Bell that "...I want to leave everybody dissatisfied and unhappy at the end of the story--we ought all to be with our own and all other stories" (Norton, 762). For Nair's characters, though, it seems that there's nowhere to go but up.