Television review: Vanity Fair


NICK EICHER, HOST: Today is Friday, February 15th. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day. Good morning. I’m Nick Eicher.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. Coming next on The World and Everything in It: Megan Basham reviews a new adaptation of a 19th- century classic.

MEGAN BASHAM, FILM CRITIC: Rumor has it Amazon is looking to develop a few series that don’t feature the sex, violence, and/or profanity common to streaming and cable dramas aimed at adults. Its latest offering suggests that’s more than talk.

Vanity Fair, the famous “novel without a hero,” offers numerous opportunities to visually capitalize on the adulterous affairs and other unbecoming conduct novelist William Makepeace Thackeray merely hinted at. But this gorgeous, wonderfully acted, seven-part series wisely resists the bait. Instead, it allows the viewer to assume from context the natural results of playing with fire.

Many have speculated that Thackeray’s Becky Sharp (played in this version by Olivia Cooke) inspired Margaret Mitchell’s quintessentially selfish heroine, Scarlet O’Hara. And certainly there’s plenty of Becky in Scarlet’s fiddle-dee-dee refusal to consider the long-term consequences of her actions. The main difference, if you can believe it, is that Becky is more egotistical and less given to sentiment. She’s also, for my money, more interesting for her unapologetic assessment of her own corrupt nature.  

CLIP: Yes, yes, I promise to love you forever and ever and tomorrow will be better than today. Fortunately, I’m not a man.

CLIP: Tonight Becky tries to work out how to live well on nothing a year. It’s easy. It’s Vanity Fair, a world where everyone is striving for what is not worth having.

Whether she’s trying to seduce her best-friend Amelia’s foppish brother; running off with the reckless son of her employer; or making herself financially beholden to a notoriously mad, bad, and dangerous-to-know lord, Becky can never resist chasing after the wind.

Yet it’s hard to entirely condemn or even dislike her. That’s because this production continually reminds us—with cheeky winks and glances at the camera—she’s a lot like ourselves.

But bad as Becky is, look closely at Thackeray’s sweet, submissive Melly-like Amelia—played by Claudia Jessie. It seems she may have helped inspire Mitchell’s protagonist as well.

As she’s written in the 19th century best-seller, we feel nothing but pity for the insipid Amelia who continues to pine after childhood sweetheart, George Osborne. She never really understands his character. Even after his death, she carries on, year after year, idolizing the memory of the vile cheat. So much so that she misses multiple chances at happiness with a loyal, upright man who sacrifices half his life trying to win her love.

CLIP: Amelia, Amelia. Amelia, please. How can it not be me…You are too late. I prayed and prayed for a friend to come when they took away my little boy. That’s when you should have come.

Thackeray’s Vanity Fair truly does refuse to provide readers someone to admire. Amazon’s adaptation, however, updates poor Amelia to a more complex, commendable character who serves as a fascinating contrast to her friend.

This Amelia, while initially naïve, seems less deluded and more simply unwilling to strive after what she will eat and wear and live on in her old age. We see hints that she starts to realize what sort of man she’s married but refuses to indulge in bitterness or apathy. Left with no means of support, she works to provide for herself and her son, but she never strives from worry or fear of the future.

Becky, on the other hand, does nothing but strive, eventually piercing herself with many pangs. The result of their two approaches to life manages to convey Biblical truth without feeling moralizing or unrealistic.

Though still a “very vain, wicked, foolish place, full of all sorts of humbugs and falsenesses and pretensions,” Amazon’s Vanity Fair is nonetheless a deliciously entertaining and edifying place.

For WORLD Radio, I’m Megan Basham.


(Photo/Amazon)

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