“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.

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Top Ten Favorite Movies Set in the 1870s

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Below is my current list of favorite movies set in the 1870s:

 

TOP TEN FAVORITE MOVIES SET IN THE 1870s

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1. “The Age of Innocence” (1993) – Martin Scorcese directed this exquisite adaptation of Edith Wharton’s award winning 1920 novel about a love triangle within New York’s high society during the Gilded Age. Daniel Day-Lewis, Michelle Pfieffer and Oscar nominee Winona Ryder starred.

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2. “The Big Country” (1958) – William Wyler directed this colorful adaptation of Donald Hamilton’s 1958 novel, “Ambush at Blanco Canyon”. The movie starred Gregory Peck, Jean Simmons, Carroll Baker and Charlton Heston.

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3. “True Grit” (2010) – Ethan and Joel Coen wrote and directed this excellent adaptation of Charles Portis’ 1968 novel about a fourteen year-old girl’s desire for retribution against her father’s killer. Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon and Hattie Steinfeld starred.

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4. “Far From the Madding Crowd” (2015) – Carey Mulligan, Matthias Schoenaerts, Tom Sturridge and Michael Sheen starred in this well done adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s 1874 novel about a young Victorian woman who attracts three different suitors. Thomas Vinterberg directed.

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5. “Around the World in 80 Days” (1956) – Mike Todd produced this Oscar winning adaptation of Jules Verne’s 1873 novel about a Victorian gentleman who makes a bet that he can travel around the world in 80 days. Directed by Michael Anderson and John Farrow, the movie starred David Niven, Cantiflas, Shirley MacLaine and Robert Newton.

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6. “Stardust” (2007) – Matthew Vaughn co-wrote and directed this adaptation of Neil Gaman’s 1996 fantasy novel. The movie starred Charlie Cox, Claire Danes and Michelle Pfieffer.

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7. “Fort Apache” (1948) – John Ford directed this loose adaptation of James Warner Bellah’s 1947 Western short story called“Massacre”. The movie starred John Wayne, Henry Fonda, John Agar and Shirley Temple.

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8. “Zulu Dawn” (1979) – Burt Lancaster, Simon Ward and Peter O’Toole starred in this depiction of the historical Battle of Isandlwana between British and Zulu forces in 1879 South Africa. Douglas Hickox directed.

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9. “Young Guns” (1988) – Emilio Estevez, Kiefer Sutherland and Lou Diamond Phillips starred in this cinematic account of Billy the Kid’s experiences during the Lincoln County War. The movie was directed by Christopher Cain.

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10. “Cowboys & Aliens” (2011) – Jon Favreau directed this adaptation of Scott Mitchell Rosenberg’s 2006 graphic novel about an alien invasion in 1870s New Mexico Territory. The movie starred Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford and Olivia Wilde.

“MRS. McGINTY’S DEAD” (2008) Review

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“MRS. McGINTY’S DEAD” (2008) Review

Since it first aired on television, I must admit that I have paid scant attention to “MRS. McGINTY’S DEAD”, ITV’s 2008 adaptation of Agatha Christie’s 1952 novel. I find this amazing, since the novel has always been a favorite of mine. I am not claiming that the 2008 movie is terrible. I was simply distracted by other matters during my last two viewings. This third viewing proved to be the charmed and I finally was able to ascertain the movie’s quality. 

Unlike its literary source, “MRS. McGINTY’S DEAD” was not set in the early 1950s. Because the television adaptation was an episode of “AGATHA CHRISTIE’S POIROT”, screenwriter Nick Dear transform the setting to the 1930s. There is some unwritten rule for the series’ producers that all “POIROT” adaptations had to be set during that decade. Why . . . I do not know or understand to this day. However, changing the story’s setting to another decade did not harm it, unlike “THIRD GIRL” or“TAKEN AT THE FLOOD”. Dear also remove a few characters – including two from a newspaper article that is featured in the plot. And the literary characters of Maude Williams and Dierde Henderson are merged into one – Maude Williams. Fortunately, these changes had no negative impact upon the story.

In “MRS. McGINTY’S DEAD”, the lodger of a dead charwoman is convicted of her murder and sentenced to be executive. Superintendent Spence, the case’s investigating officer, suspects that James Bentley is innocent of Mrs. McGinty’s murder and asks Hercule Poirot to investigate the case for him. Poirot travels to the village of Broadhinny and discovers that Mrs. McGinty had often worked as a cleaner at the houses of people in the village. He also discovers among her possessions a newspaper published a few days before her death and that a particular article had been cut out, which he later discovers was about four women connected with famous murder cases. Mrs. McGinty had also purchased a bottle of ink from a local shop. Poirot concludes that Mrs. McGinty had recognized one of the four women and had written to the newspaper for more information. One of Mrs. McGinty’s cleaning learned of her discovery and killed her before she could talk.

After my recent viewing of “MRS. McGINTY’S DEAD”, I realized that I did this movie a disservice by paying scant attention to it during my earlier viewings. The movie proved to be very entertaining and a worthy adaptation of a novel that has long been a favorite of mine. First of all, Christie created an intriguing, yet entertaining mystery that kept me guessing, until the last pages. And both Dear and director Ashley Pierce did an excellent job in translating Christie’s story to the screen, maintaining its drama with links to the mysterious past and humor. Speaking of the latter, “MRS. McGINTY’S DEAD” proved to be one of the funniest Poirot mysteries I have ever come across. Since this story is a “village mystery”, a rarity for a Poirot story, audiences get to witness the Belgian-born sleuth struggle as a guest at an untidy country manor-turned-guesthouse. The movie also dealt with Ariadne Oliver’s frustrating collaboration with a playwright, who wants to adapt (meaning change) one of her Sven Hjerson novels. And the movie provides plenty of laughs from both story arcs. I do have one major regret regarding Dear and Pierce’s adaptation of Christie’s novel – they never included that fabulous scene in which Poirot revealed the murderer by giving the latter a major scare with the murder weapon. It was such a memorable scene that I felt some regret that it had not been included in the movie.

The production values for “MRS. McGINTY’S DEAD” seemed top notch. Production designer Jeff Tessler and his team did an excellent job in re-creating the English countryside of the 1930s. His work was solidly supported by Miranda Cull and Paul Spriggs’ art direction and especially Sheena Napier’s costume designs. I was especially impressed by the fact that Napier did not go over-the-top with her costumes, considering the movie’s village setting. I wish I could be just as complimentary about Alan Almond’s photography. Mind you, I found his photography beautiful and rich in color. But there were scenes I wish had been filmed with more light. And I could have done without the soft-focus photography.

David Suchet gave one of his funniest performances as Poirot in this movie. Mind you, he perfectly conveyed Poirot’s pragmatic nature, intelligence and detective skills. But Suchet was hilarious as the long-suffering Poirot forced to deal with the incompetent housekeeping skills of his hosts, the Summerhayes. Zoë Wanamaker gave an equally hilarious as mystery novelist Ariadne Oliver, forced to endure playwright Robin Upward’s changes in the stage adaptation of one of her novels. And both Suchet and Wanamaker once again created magic whenever they appeared together on the screen.

“MRS. McGINTY’S DEAD” also featured some first-rate supporting performances. After his first appearance in 2006’s “TAKEN AT THE FLOOD”, Richard Hope returned as Superintendent Harold Spence, the police investigator whose dissatisfaction with James Bentley’s conviction, drew Poirot into the McGinty case. He gave a solid performance, just as he did in the 2006 movie. However, both his performance and the character did not knock my socks off. And Amanda Root’s portrayal of the doctor’s wife, Mrs. Rendell, seemed a bit over-the-top. But I did enjoy Raquel Cassidy, Mary Stockley, Sarah Smart and Paul Rhys’s performances. The latter was especially funny as the pretentious playwright, Robin Upward, who drove Mrs. Oliver crazy. But the two performances that really impressed me came from Joe Absolom, who was interesting as the wrongly convicted and anemic lodger James Bentley; and Siân Phillips, who portrayed the enigmatic and secretive Mrs. Upward with great skill and mystery.

In the end, “MRS. McGINTY” proved to be a first-rate adaptation of the 1952 novel. In fact, it was a lot better than I remembered from my first (and second) viewing. I thought it was well written by Nick Dear and directed with skill by Adrian Pearce. Most of all, it featured hilarious performances by both David Suchet and Zoë Wanamaker, who re-ignited their screen chemistry with great ease. I really enjoyed this film.