“VANITY FAIR” (1987) Review

“VANITY FAIR” (1987) Review

I found myself wondering how many adaptations of William Makepeace Thackeray’s 1847-1848 novel there have been. As it turned out, this is one piece of literature that has been adapted countless number of times – in film, radio and television. I have seen at least five adaptations myself. And one of them turned out to be the sixteen-part television miniseries that aired on the BBC in 1987.

Since Thackeray’s novel is a very familiar tale, I will give a brief recount. Adapted by Alexander Baron and directed by Michael Owen Morris, “VANITY FAIR” told the story of one Rebecca “Becky” Sharp, an impoverished daughter of an English art teacher and French dancer in late Georgian Britain. Determined to climb her way out of poverty and into society, Becky manages to befriend Amelia Sedley, the daughter of a wealthy London merchant. When both finally graduate from Miss Pinkerton’s School for Girls, Becky is invited to spend some time with Amelia’s family, before she has to assume duties as a governess to the daughters of a minor baronet and landowner named Sir Pitt Crawley. During her time with the Sedleys, she almost manages to snare Amelia’s older brother, Jos, a “nabob” from India, as a husband. But the interference of George Osborne, the son of another merchant who happens to Amelia’s heart desire, leaves Becky single and employment as a governess. However, upon her arrival at Queen’s Crawley, the Crawleys’ estate, Becky’s charm and wiles inflict a shake-up with the family that would influence lives for years to come.

While viewing “VANITY FAIR”, it occurred to me that it is really a product of its time. Although not completely faithful to Thackeray’s novel, it struck me as being more so than any adaptation I have seen. Most literary adaptations on television tend to be rather faithful – at least between the 1970s and the 1990s. Especially during the decade of the 1980s. Another sign of this miniseries being a product of its age is the quality of its photography. It is rather faded – typical of many such productions during the 1970s and 1980s. But for me, complete faithfulness to a literary source is not a true sign of the quality of a television adaptation. Nor the quality of the film it was shot on. So, how do I feel about “VANITY FAIR”?

Remember the miniseries’ faded look I had commented upon? I really wish it had been shot on better film stock. Stuart Murdoch and Mickey Edwards’ visual effects struck me as too eye-catching to be wasted on film stock that quickly faded with time. Another problem I had proved to be the episode that centered around the Battle of Waterloo. I realize that it would make sense for the most of episode’s narrative to be told from Becky Sharp Crawley’s point of view. Yet, considering that it was able to feature the discovery of one dead character on the battlefield, I wish the episode had been willing to embellish the sequence a bit more. The sequence featured a great deal on Becky and Amelia saying good-bye to their respective spouses, along with Becky bargaining with Jos Sedley over her husband’s horses. Overall, the entire sequence . . . nearly the entire episode seemed to lack a sense of urgency over the entire Waterloo campaign and how it affected the main characters. I have one last complaint about “VANITY FAIR” . . . namely the Maquis of Steyne. To be honest, my complaint against him is rather minor. I have a complaint against his physical appearance. Thanks to Lesley Weaver’s makeup, I could barely make out actor John Shrapnel’s features. He seemed to be a whole mass of hair and whiskers plastered on a slightly reddish countenance.

On the other hand, I really enjoyed how the production went into full detail of Thackeray’s novel. Was it completely faithful? I rather doubt it. I noticed how Alexander Baron’s screenplay did not adhere to Thackeray’s rather nasty portrayal of non-white characters such as Miss Schwartz. Thankfully. On the other hand, Baron, along with director Michael Owen Morris did an excellent job in their portrayals of the novel’s main characters – especially Rebecca Sharp, Rawdon Crawley, Amelia Sedley, Jos Sedley, George Osborne, Mr. Osborne and William Dobbin. I will be honest. My favorite segments of the production . . . are basically my favorite segments of the novel. I enjoyed the production’s re-creation of Becky’s story that began with her departure from Miss Pinkerton’s School for Girls to hers and Amelia’s adventures during the Waterloo campaign.

Despite the miniseries’ limited photography, I must admit there are other aspects of “VANITY FAIR” that impressed me. I enjoyed Gavin Davies and Sally Engelbach’s production designs. Both did an admirable of re-creating the production’s setting of early 19th century Britain, Belgium, France and Germany. They were ably assisted by set decorations created by the art department, led by David Ackrill and Tony Fisher. But I really must commend Joyce Hawkins’ costume designs. I found them colorful and tailor-made. I also thought Ms. Hawkins did an excellent job in her re-creation of the early 19th century fashions.

There is one segment in Thackeray’s story I found difficult to enjoy – namely Becky’s rise in British society, her relationship with the Maquis of Steyne, the exposure of her as a cold parent and ending with the destruction of her marriage to Rawdon. It is not the fault of Baron, Morris or Thackeray. It is simply my least favorite part of the story. During this segment, Becky transformed from a morally questionable anti-heroine to an outright villainess. Perhaps this is why I found it difficult to revel in Becky’s eventual fall. One, I found this portrayal of Becky a bit too one-dimensional for my tastes. Two, there seemed to be this underlying theme in Becky’s downfall that she deserved it for being too ambitious, not knowing her place and not being the ideal woman. I realize that I should sweep these feelings away in the wake of her last crime. But for some reason, I cannot. A part of me wonders, to this day, if Thackeray had went too far in this transformation of Becky’s character.

I did not have a problem with the performances featured in “VANITY FAIR”. If I must be honest, I found them to be very competent. Morris handled his cast very well. The miniseries featured solid performances from Fiona Walker, Shaughan Seymour, Gillian Raine, Tony Doyle, Malcolm Terris, Vicky Licorish, Eileen Colgan, Irene MacDougall, Alan Surtees, and David Horovitch. I also enjoyed the performances from the likes of Freddie Jones, who made a very lively Sir Pitt Crawley; John Shrapnel, who gave an intimidating portrayal of the Maquis of Steyne, underneath the makeup and wig; Siân Phillips, who struck me as a very entertaining Matilda Crawley; David Swift, whose portrayal of Mr. Sedley seemed to reek with pathos; and Philippa Urquhart, who was excellent as the malleable Mrs. Briggs.

But there were those performances that truly impressed me. Robert Lang gave an excellent performance as the ruthless and ambitious Mr. Osborne, who seemed to be handicapped by his own stubborness. Benedict Taylor did a superb job in portraying the varied nature of George Osborne – his charm, his shallowness and selfish streak. James Saxon was equally impressive as the insecure, yet vain Joseph “Jos” Sedley. Simon Dormandy gave a very complex and skillful performance as the priggish William Dobbin, a character I have always harbored mixed feelings about. I personally think that Jack Klaff made the best on-screen Rawdon Crawley I have seen on-screen, so far. Although his character has always been described as an affable, yet empty-headed man who eventually realized he had married a woman beyond his depth. Klaff did an excellent job of conveying those traits more than actor I have seen in the role.

Rebecca Saire seemed perfectly cast as the demure, yet shallow Amelia Sedley, who spent years infatuated with a man she never really knew or understood. It is not often I find an actress who does an excellent of portraying a girl in a woman’s body, who at the end, is forced to grow up due to an unpleasant realization. If Saire seemed perfectly cast as the childish Amelia, Eve Matheson struck me as even more perfect as the charming and manipulative Rebecca Sharp. Unlike other actresses who have portrayed Becky, I would never describe Matheson as a beauty, despite being physically attractive. What I found impressive about Matheson’s performance is the manner in which she conveyed Becky’s ability to charm and seduce others, utilizing her eyes, mannerisms, the ability to cry on cue and her voice. Matheson managed to portray Becky as the most desirable woman around.

I have never seen another on screen Becky Sharp who managed to ooze charm and seduction the way Matheson did. And yet, she also managed to convey Becky’s unpleasant side without being theatrical about it. Someone had once described Matheson’s Beck as “spunky”. Oh please. Spunky? The 1987 Rebecca Sharp was a lot more than that, thanks to Matheson’s performance. Dammit, the woman should have received some kind of award for her performance. She was that good.

I have a few quibbles about “VANITY FAIR”. Basically, I wish the miniseries had been shot on better film stock. And I wish that the Waterloo sequence had been a bit more . . . embellished. Otherwise, I feel that this 1987 adaptation of William Makepeace Thackeray’s novel is the best I have seen so far. I am flabbergasted at how close I came to ignoring this production altogether.

“JANE EYRE” (1983) Review

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“JANE EYRE” (1983) Review

As long as I can remember, both the Hollywood and British film industries have trotted out Charlotte Brontë’s 1847 novel,“Jane Eyre” in order to make a movie or television adaptation of it. Looking back, I realize that I have seen at least six adaptation of the novel in my life time. 

One of those adaptations turned out to be the 1983 BBC miniseries, “JANE EYRE”. Directed by Julian Amyes and adapted by Alexander Baron, the eleven-part miniseries starred Zelah Clarke in the title role and Timothy Dalton as Edward Rochester. Following Brontë’s novel, “JANE EYRE” told the story of a plain young English woman in early 19th Britain – from her abusive childhood to her position as a governess at an imposing manor in the Yorkshire countryside. Jane’s story began at Gateshead, where she suffered abuse at the hands of her widowed aunt-in-law and three cousins. After a clash with her cousin John, Mrs. Reed has Jane enrolled at Lowood Institution, a charity school for girls. Jane spends the next eight years under the tyrannical rule of Lowood’s headmaster, the self-righteous clergyman Mr. Brocklehurst – six years as a student and two as a teacher.

Longing for greener pastures, Jane advertises her services as a governess, and receives a reply from a Mrs. Alice Fairfax, housekeeper of Thornfield Hall. She takes the position and becomes governess for Adele Varens, the young French ward of Thornfield’s master, Mr. Edward Rochester. After meeting Mr. Rochester, Jane develops a close friendship with him . . . and the two eventually fall in love. But a secret involving strange laughs, a mysterious fire and an attack on Rochester’s house guest, Mr. Mason threatens any chance of marital bliss for the governess and her employer.

I first saw “JANE EYRE” years ago on a video cassette copy that featured no opening or closing credits between episodes. So, it eventually came as surprise to me that the 1983 miniseries had aired in eleven thirty-minute installments. I found myself wondering why the BBC had decided to air the miniseries in this fashion. Why not air it in five one-hour episodes? Or six fifty-minutes episodes? Regardless of the manner in which the BBC had aired “JANE EYRE”, I cannot deny that in the end, I found it very satisfying.

Before I wax lyrical over “JANE EYRE”, I have to acknowledge some of its aspects that I found unappealing. Many fans probably loved the idea of this adaptation being so close to Brontë’s novel in compare to many other adaptations. And while I am relieved that Alexander Baron’s screenplay did not rush the story in a manner similar to the 1997 television adaptation, there were times when I found this miniseries a bit too loyal to the novel. I might as well confess that I am not particularly fond of the sequences that featured Jane’s years at Lonwood and her time spent with St. John Rivers and his two sisters. The Lowood sequences bored me senseless. I understand that Jane’s interactions with the school’s headmaster was a message on the oppression of a patriarchal society, I practically struggled to prevent myself from hitting the Fast Forward button of my DVD remote. I could say the same about Jane’s time with the Rivers family. While I had initially found her relationship with St. John Rivers fascinating, I heaved a mighty sigh of relief by the time Jane returned to Thornfield Hall. Sometimes, a film or television production can be too faithful to a literary source . . . to the point of dragging the story’s pacing to a near halt.

I have one last complaint to reveal – namely the characterization of Edward Rochester’s mysterious wife from the West Indies, Mrs. Bertha Rochester. I realize that Baron and director Julian Amyes were trying to be as faithful to the novel as possible. Unfortunately, Bertha’s characterization turned out to be another example of the dangers of a movie or miniseries being too faithful to a literary source. I was surprised to experience a glimmer of sympathy toward the character, while watching the 1997 movie. I felt no such glimmer in this version . . . merely irritation. I cannot blame actress Joolia Cappleman. She must have been following the script or Amyes’ direction. But for years, I have harbored the feeling that the characterization of Bertha . . . and Adele’s dancer mother, for that matter, may have been examples of Brontë’s xenophobia toward the French or anyone who was not British. Bertha’s characterization struck me as completely one-dimensional and created in a manner to garner sympathy toward the controlling Rochester, who had just attempted to drag Jane into a bigamous marriage. Considering that the 1966 novel, “Wide Sargasso Sea” had been around for seventeen years around this time, could it have hurt both Amyes and Baron to portray Bertha in a slightly more sympathetic light?

Michael Edwards did a solid job in his production designs for “JANE EYRE”. I was especially impressed by his use of Deene Park, located near Corby, Northamptonshire; for the Thornfield Hall sequences. And his recreation of the Yorkshire countryside in 1830s England during those scenes featuring Jane’s attempts to find shelter and food following her flight from Thornfield struck me as tolerably convincing. Cinematographers David Doogood, John Kenway and Keith Salmon’s photography seemed pretty solid, despite the miniseries being shot in video film. Speaking of the 1830s, I still find it surprising that this is the only adaptation of “Jane Eyre” that is set during this decade. The other five versions I have seen were all set during the early or mid 1840s. I must admit that Gill Hardie’s costumes ably reflected that particular decade.

Despite my complaints, I still enjoyed “JANE EYRE” very much. Baron and Amyes did an excellent job of recapturing Brontë’s saga. Their handling of Jane’s romance with Rochester bridled with passion and intelligence. More importantly, they retained enough of Brontë’s work to convey a very plausible development of Jane’s character. Both director and screenwriter perfectly maintained Rochester’s complex personality. His love for Jane and appreciation of her intelligence seemed apparent. Yet, Baron maintained a good deal of Rochester’s sardonic humor and controlling nature. The meat of Brontë’s novel has always been centered around Jane and Rochester’s relationship. And the miniseries perfectly captured every delicious nuance of it. But I must admit that I was also impressed by the sequences featuring Jane’s early years at Gateshead. Baron did a good job of capturing the miseries that Jane suffered at the hands of the Reed family. When I first saw “JANE EYRE”, I had lacked the patience to appreciate the sequence in which Jane becomes a vagabond before meeting the Rivers family. This last viewing made me appreciate it, because it conveyed the suffering that Jane had endured after leaving Thornfield Hall – something that most adaptations seem to gloss over.

I cannot deny that the performances featured in “JANE EYRE” were top-notched. Both Zelah Clarke and Timothy Dalton created a strong screen chemistry as the two leads, Jane Eyre and Edward Rochester. Clarke’s Jane seemed very submissive in Rochester’s “commanding” presence . . . at least at first. There was an interesting scene in which Jane eagerly approached her employer, the morning following an evening of easy camaraderie between the two. Instead, Rochester responded in a brusque manner, producing a wounded puppy dog expression on Jane’s face. Another scene that impressed me featured Jane’s reluctant admission of her true feelings toward Rochester. The pair acted the hell out of that scene, leaving me convinced that I had witnessed their finest moment together. Some might view Rochester’s failed attempt to prevent Jane’s departure from Thornfield as that special moment. But the “admission of love” scene was the one that really impressed me.

Zelah Clarke did an excellent job in conveying Jane’s emotional growth from a reserved and pious eighteen year-old governess to the strong-willed and more emotional woman. Her Jane Eyre struck me as slightly more reserved than other portrayals. Which seemed all the more amazing to me, as Clarke slowly revealed Jane’s inner passions. Timothy Dalton gave, in my opinion, the best portrayal of the complex Edward Rochester. Mind you, he had his moments of theatricality. But in the end, Dalton superbly conveyed both the best and worst of Rochester’s character with seamless skill. Some have declared Dalton as too handsome for the plain-looking Rochester. Considering that just about every actor who has portrayed the character was more attractive than the literary character. I found such arguments irrelevant.

Both Clarke and Dalton received solid support from the rest of the cast. Damien Thomas seemed very impressive as Richard Mason, Rochester’s tenuously sane and nervous brother-in-law. I could also say the same about Andrew Bicknell’s cool and commanding portrayal of St. John Rivers, the missionary wannabe. Blance Youinou was quite charming as Rochester’s young French ward, Adele Valens. And Sian Pattenden was impressively believable as the hot-tempered young Jane Eyre.

I cannot say that “JANE EYRE” is perfect. Unlike other costume drama fans, I do not require that period movie or miniseries be an exact adaptation of its literary source. Although this adaptation of Brontë’s novel might not be completely faithful, I do wish that screenwriter Alexander Baron had been even a little less faithful, especially in scenes featuring Jane’s years at Lowood and her time spent with the Rivers family. But I cannot deny that this miniseries turned out to be an excellent adaptation. I would probably go so far to state that it might be the best adaptation of Brontë’s novel. And we have Baron’s writing, Julian Amyes’ direction and superb performances from Zelah Clarke and Timothy Dalton to thank.

 

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