“VANITY FAIR” (2018) Review

“VANITY FAIR” (2018) Review

When I had first heard that the ITV channel and Amazon Studios had plans to adapt William Makepeace Thackeray’s 1848 novel, “Vanity Fair”, I must admit that I felt no interest in watching the miniseries. After all, I had already seen four other adaptations, including the BBC’s 1987 production. And I regard the latter as the best version of Thackeray’s novel I had ever seen.

In the end, my curiosity got the best of me and I decided to watch the seven-part miniseries. In a nutshell, “VANITY FAIR” followed the experiences of Rebecca “Becky” Sharp, the social climbing daughter of an English not-so-successful painter and a French dancer in late Georgian England during and after the Napoleonic Wars. The production also told the story of Becky’s school friend and daughter of a wealthy merchant, Amelia Sedley. The story begins with both young women leaving Miss Pinkerton’s Academy for Young Ladies. Becky managed to procure a position as governess to Sir Pitt Crawley, a slightly crude yet friendly baronet. Before leaving for her new position, Becky visits Amelia’s family. She tries to seduce Jos Sedley, Amelia’s wealthy brother and East India Company civil servant. Unfortunately George Osborne, a friend of Jos and son of another wealthy merchant, puts a stop to the budding romance.

While working for the Crawleys, Becky meets and falls in love with Sir Pitt’s younger son, Captain Rawdon Crawley. When Sir Pitt proposes marriage to Becky, she shocks the family with news of her secret marriage to Rawdon. The couple becomes ostracized and ends up living in London on Rawdon’s military pay and gambling winnings. They also become reacquainted with Amelia Sedley, who has her own problems. When her father loses his fortune, George’s own father insists that he dump Amelia and marry a Jamaican heiress. George refuses to do so and thanks to his friend William Dobbin’s urging, marries Amelia. Mr. Osborne ends up disinheriting George. However, the romantic lives of Becky and Amelia take a backseat when history overtakes them and their husbands with the return of Napoleon Bonaparte.

I wish I could say that the 2018 miniseries was the best adaptation of Thackery’s novel I had seen. But it is not. The production had its . . . flaws. One, I disliked its use of the song “All Along the Watchtower” in each episode’s opening credits and other rock and pop tunes during the episodes’ closing credits. They felt so out of place in the miniseries’ production. Yes, I realize that a growing number of period dramas have doing the same. And quite frankly, I detest it. This scenario barely worked in the 2006 movie, “MARIE ANTOINETTE”. Now, this use of pop tunes in period dramas strike me as awkward, ham-fisted, unoriginal and lazy.

I also noticed that producer and screenwriter Gwyneth Hughes threw out the younger Pitt Crawley character (Becky’s brother-in-law), kept the Bute Crawley character and transformed him from Becky Sharp’s weak and unlikable uncle-in-law into her brother-in-law. Hughes did the same with the Lady Jane Crawley and Martha Crawley characters. She tossed aside the Lady Jane character and transformed Martha from Becky’s aunt-in-law to sister-in-law. Frankly, I did not care for this. I just could not see characters like Bute and Martha suddenly become sympathetic guardians for Becky and Rawdon’s son in the end. It just did not work for me. I have one last problem with “VANITY FAIR”, but I will get to it later.

I may not regard “VANITY FAIR” as the best adaptation of Thackery’s novel, I cannot deny that it is first-rate. Gwyneth Hughes and director James Strong did an excellent job of bringing the 1848 novel to life on the television screen. Because this adaptation was conveyed in seven episodes, both Hughes and Strong were given the opportunity retell Thackery’s saga without taking too many shortcuts. The miniseries replayed Becky Sharp’s experiences with the Sedley family, George Osbourne, and the Crawley family in great detail. I was especially impressed by the miniseries’ recount of Becky and Amelia’s experiences during the Waterloo campaign – which is the story’s true high point, as far as I am concerned. Also, this adaptation had conveyed George’s experiences during Waterloo with more detail than any other adaptation I have seen.

Aside from the Waterloo sequence, there were other scenes that greatly impressed me. I really enjoyed those scenes that featured the famous Duchess of Richmond’s ball in the fourth episode, “In Which Becky Joins Her Regiment”; Becky’s attempts to woo Jos Sedley in the first episode, “Miss Sharp In The Presence Of The Enemy”; the revelation of Becky’s marriage to Rawdon Crawley in ” “A Quarrel About An Heiress”; and her revelation to Amelia about the truth regarding George in the final episode, “Endings and Beginnings”. There were people who were put off that the series did not end exactly how the novel did – namely the death of Jos, with whom Becky had hooked up in the end. I have to be honest . . . that did not bother me. However, I was amused that Becky’s last line in the miniseries seemed to hint that Jos’ death might be a possibility in the near future.

The production values for “VANITY FAIR” struck me as quite beautiful. I thought Anna Pritchard’s production designs did an excellent job in re-creating both London, the English countryside, Belgium, Germany, India and West Africa between the Regency era and the early 1830s. Not only did I find the miniseries’ production values beautiful, but also Ed Rutherford’s cinematography. His images struck me as not only beautiful, but sharp and colorful. I would not say that Lucinda Wright and Suzie Harman’s costume designs blew my mind. But I cannot deny that I found them rather attractive and serviceable for the narrative’s setting.

One of the production’s real virtues proved to be a very talented cast. “VANITY FAIR” featured some solid performances from it supporting players. Well . . . I would say more than solid. I found the performances of Robert Pugh, Peter Wight, Suranne Jones, Claire Skinner, Mathew Baynton, Sian Clifford, Monica Dolan, and Elizabeth Berrington to be more than solid. In fact, I would say they gave excellent performances. But they were not alone.

Michael Palin, whom I have not seen in a movie or television production in years, gave an amusing narration in each episode as the story’s author William Makepeace Thackeray. Ellie Kendrick gave a very poignant performance as Jane Osborne, who seemed to be caught between her loyalty to her bitter father and her long-suffering sister-in-law. Simon Beale Russell gave a superb, yet ambiguous portrayal of the warm and indulgent John Sedley, who also had a habit of infantilizing his family. Frances de la Tour was deliciously hilarious and entertaining as Becky Sharp’s aunt-in-law and benefactress Lady Matilda Crawley. I could also say the same about Martin Clunes, who gave a very funny performance as the crude, yet lively Sir Pitt Crawley. One last funny performance came from David Fynn, who gave an excellent portrayal of the vain, yet clumsy civil servant, Jos Sedley. Anthony Head gave a skillful performance as the cynical and debauched Lord Styne. I thought Charlie Rowe was superb as the self-involved and arrogant George Osborne. Rowe, whom I recalled as a child actor, practically oozed charm, arrogance and a false sense of superiority in his performance as the shallow George.

I have only seen Johnny Flynn in two roles – including the role of William Dobbin in this production. After seeing “VANITY FAIR”, it seemed that the William Dobbin role seemed tailored fit for him. He gave an excellent performance as the stalwart Army officer who endured years of unrequited love toward Amelia Sedley. Tom Bateman was equally excellent as the charming, yet slightly dense Rawdon Crawley. At first, I thought Bateman would portray Rawdon as this dashing, yet self-confident Army officer. But thanks to his performance, the actor gradually revealed that underneath all that glamour and dash was a man who was not as intelligent as he originally seemed to be. Amelia Sedley has never been a favorite character of mine. Her intense worship of the shallow George has always struck me as irritating. Thanks to Claudia Jessie’s excellent performance, I not only saw Amelia as irritating as usual, but also sympathetic for once.

Television critics had lavished a great deal of praise upon Olivia Cooke as the sharp-witted and manipulative Becky Sharp. In fact, many have labeled her performance as one of the best versions of that character. And honestly? I have to agree. Cooke was more than superb . . . she was triumphant as the cynical governess who used her charms and wit in an attempt to climb the social ladder of late Georgian Britain. I would not claim that Cooke was the best on-screen Becky I have seen, but she was certainly one of the better ones. I have only one minor complaint – I found her portrayal of Becky as a poor parent to her only son rather strident. Becky has always struck me as a cold mother to Rawdon Junior. But instead of cold, Cooke’s Becky seemed to scream in anger every time she was near the boy. I found this heavy-handed and I suspect the real perpetrator behind this was either screenwriter Gwyneth Hughes or director James Strong.

I have a few complaints about “VANITY FAIR”. I will not deny it. But I also cannot deny that despite its few flaws, I thought it was an excellent adaptation of William Makepeace Thackeray’s novel. Actually, I believe it is one of the better adaptations. “VANITY FAIR” is also one of the best period dramas I have seen from British television in a LONG TIME. And I mean a long time. Most period dramas I have seen in the past decade were either mediocre or somewhere between mediocre and excellent. “VANITY FAIR” is one of the first that has led me to really take notice in years. And I have to credit Gwyneth Hughes’ writing, James Strong’s direction and especially the superb performances from a first-rate cast led by Olivia Cooke. It would be nice to see more period dramas of this quality in the near future.

“AN IDEAL HUSBAND” (1999) Review

“AN IDEAL WOMAN” (1999) Review

I have a confession. I have not seen that many adaptations of Oscar Wilde’s plays and novels. And it has been quite a while since I viewed my last adaptation, namely the 1999 film, “AN IDEAL HUSBAND”. I was surprised to discover that this 1999 movie was not the first adaptation of Wilde’s 1895 stage play. There have been other adaptations – including four other films and several radio productions. But this is the only adaptation I have ever seen.

Written and directed by Oliver Parker, “AN IDEAL HUSBAND” opens with a ball held at the home of British government minister Sir Robert Chiltern and his wife, Lady Gertrude Chiltern. Among those attending the ball are:

*Arthur, Viscount Goring, a close friend of the Chilterns
*Mrs. Laura Cheveley, a former British socialite and Lady Gertrude’s former schoolmate
*Miss Mabel Chiltern, Sir Robert’s younger sister
*Earl of Caversham, Lord Arthur’s father
*Lady Markby, a friend of Mrs. Cheveley
*Tommy Trafford, Sir Robert’s aide and potential suitor for Mabel
*Sir Edward, a newspaper baron

During the ball, Mrs. Cheveley approaches Sir Robert with a request to help support a fraudulent scheme she is financing to build a canal in Argentina. Mrs. Cheveley’s request is tainted with blackmail. If Sir Robert does not agree to her request, she plans to reveal that he had sold a Cabinet secret to her late mentor and lover, Baron Arnheim, which enabled the latter to buy shares in the Suez Canal Company three days before the British government announced its purchase of the company. Arnheim’s payoff was the basis of Sir Robert’s fortune and Mrs. Cheveley has Robert’s letter to Arnheim as proof of the latter’s crime. In desperation, Robert turns to his friend, Arthur Goring, to help him deal with the blackmailing socialite, who was a former lover of Arthur.

I understand there had been changes made to Oscar Wilde’s original plot. Since I have never read or seen the play, I will not comment on these changes. Instead, I want to discuss the movie. Overall, I thought it was an entertaining and charming tale about the slippery slopes of moral ambiguity and social hypocrisy. As I watched the movie’s narrative unfold, it occurred to me that it revolved around a good deal of hiding, deception and misconceptions – the very traits that have been a part of romantic comedies in Hollywood for years. The epitome of this kind of storytelling could be found in the sequence in which Lord Goring found himself greeting a variety of visitors inside his home during the space of one night, while he and his valet struggled to keep all or most of them hidden in separate rooms. “AN IDEAL HUSBAND” also featured some sparkling dialogue, thanks to the pens of Oscar Wilde and the movie’s screenwriter/director, Oliver Parker. Both Rupert Everett and Julianne Moore received the cream of the lines:

“Fashion is what one wears oneself. What is unfashionable is what other people wear. Other people are quite dreadful. The only possible society is oneself.” – Arthur, Lord Goring

“Do you know, Gertrude, I don’t mind your talking morality a bit. Morality is simply the attitude we adopt towards people whom we personally dislike. You dislike me, I am quite aware of that, and I have always detested you.” – Mrs. Laura Cheveley

“All I know, Gertrude, is that it takes great courage to see the world in all its tainted glory, and still to love it. And even more courage to see it in the one you love. Gertrude, you have more courage than any woman I have ever known. Do not be afraid now to use it.” – Lord Goring

As one can see, Lord Goring and Mrs. Cheverley are among my two favorite characters in the story, along with young Mabel Chiltern. Most of the other characters seemed to wallow in arrogance, self-deception or priggishness. My least favorite character proved to be Sir Robert Chiltern. I found him not only priggish, but also hypocritical and dishonest. I realize that audiences are supposed to regard Mrs. Cheveley as the worst kind. And perhaps she is. But her dishonesty did not strike me as hypocritical, as Sir Robert’s.

I have two problems with the plot for “AN IDEAL HUSBAND”. I also found it rather annoying that she was the only character who suffered for her dishonesty . . . unlike Sir Robert. The worst he had suffered was a scare and a wife whose disappointment in him only lasted a few days. Then again . . . Oscar Wilde was a man. I should not have been surprised that he would have allowed Sir Robert to suffer as little consequences as possible for his transgressions. Another problem I had with the movie was its last half hour. Following Laura Cheveley’s departure from London, Lord Goring finally asked Mable Chiltern for her hand in marriage. However, Sir Robert had refused to give, due to his discovery that Lord Goring and Laura Cheveley had been lovers in the past. The plot for the film’s last half hour seemed like a completely different story, aside from it being a consequence of Lord Goring’s past. I think Laura Cheveley left the story some twenty to thirty minutes too soon. This made the last half hour feel almost disjointed and unnecessary.

I have no complaints about the movie’s production and look. I really enjoyed Michael Howells’ production designs for the film. I thought he did an excellent job of re-creating late Victorian London. This was especially apparent in crowd scenes that featuring the elite riding along Hyde Park’s Rotten Row and balls and parties for the elite, including the Chiltern’s ball during the film’s first half. Howells’ work was greatly enhanced by Rod McLean’s art direction and Katie Lee’s set decorations. Yes, I have not forgotten about the costume designs created by Caroline Harris. What can I say? They were exquisite, as shown in the images below:

 

The performances featured in “AN IDEAL HUSBAND” struck me as first-rate. There was not a performance in this movie that did not failed to impress me. The movie featured solid, yet charming performances from the likes of Ben Pullen, Nikolas Grace, Peter Vaughn, Marsha Fitzlan, Simon Russell Beale and Lindsay Duncan, whom I found especially entertaining as Laura Cheveley’s witty friend, Lady Markby. Jeroen Krabbé did an excellent job in conveying the ambiguous, yet corrupt nature of Sir Robert’s mentor, Baron Arnheim. John Wood gave a slightly funny performance as Lord Goring’s stuffy father, the Earl of Caversham. Minnie Driver’s portrayal of Sir Robert’s younger sister Mabel Chiltern not only struck me as funny, witty and completely charming.

I must admit that I found the characters of Sir Robert and Lady Gertrude Chiltern a bit off-putting, but I cannot deny that both Jeremy Northam and Cate Blanchett breathed life into their characters. Northam did an excellent job in capturing the hypocrisy and ambition of Sir Robert Chiltern. And Northam also ably conveyed Sir Robert’s obvious love for his wife. Blanchett gave an equally skillful performance as Lady Gertrude Chiltern. The actress did an excellent job of portraying how Gertrude’s love for Sir Robert dangerously edged toward blind idealism and the character’s emotional devastation upon learning about her husband’s past transgression. Julianne Moore earned a Golden Globe nomination for her portrayal of Mrs. Laura Cheveley. And it was a well deserved nomination, as far as I am concerned. I thought she gave one of the film’s best performances as the scheming blackmailing socialite, who also possessed a talent for acute and pragmatic observations of human nature and society. The film’s other best performance came from Rupert Everett, who portrayed the superficially self-absorbed Lord Goring. And that is one of the reasons why I enjoyed Everett’s performance so much. He managed to convey the warmth and wisdom underneath the shallow playboy with style, wit and subtlety. Like Moore, Everett managed to earn a Golden Globe nomination.

I enjoyed “AN IDEAL HUSBAND”. Well . . . most of it. I thought Oliver Parker did an excellent job of adapting Oscar Wilde’s play with a witty script and a first-rate cast led by Rupert Everett. It is a pity that the last act of the movie seemed almost like an afterthought. Oh well.

“PERSUASION” (1995) Review

“PERSUASION” (1995) Review

Twenty-four years after the BBC aired its 1971 version of Jane Austen’s 1818 novel, ”Persuasion”; and twelve years before ITV aired its adaptation; Columbia Pictures released its own version on British television and in movie theaters across the U.S. The movie went on to become highly acclaimed, the winner of a BAFTA TV award for Best Single Drama, and regarded as the definitive version of Austen’s novel. 

Directed by Roger Michell, ”PERSUASION” told the story of Anne Elliot, the middle daughter of an impoverished baronet in Regency England. Seven or eight years before the story began, she had been persuaded to reject the marriage proposal of a young and ambitious Royal Navy officer named Frederick Wentworth by her godmother and late mother’s friend, Lady Russell. After spending so many years in deep regret over her action, Anne found herself facing Wentworth again during a visit to her younger sister’s home. Now a captain and wealthy from the spoils of the recent Napoleonic Wars, Wentworth continued to harbor a good deal of residual anger and resentment toward Anne. And the latter continued to harbor remorse over her actions and a passionate love for the naval officer.

After watching the 2007 version of ”PERSUASION”, I found myself wondering how I would regard this particular version. Needless to say, I found it very satisfying. Michell did an excellent job in capturing the ambivalence of Austen’s novel. The center of that ambivalence rested on the underlying passion of Anne Elliot and Frederick Wentworth’s romantic history. And this passion beautifully permeated the movie; thanks to Michell, screenwriter Nick Dear and the two leads – Amanda Root and Ciarán Hinds. The movie relived all of the passion and emotions of their relationship – both positive and negative. Michell and Dear also did a top-notch job in revealing the initial dangers that the British aristocracy and landed gentry faced from their complacency, arrogance and unwillingness to match the ambitious endeavors of the rising middle-class; especially through characters like Anne’s father, Sir Walter Elliot.

As much as I had enjoyed ”PERSUASION”, I believe it had its flaws. One of those flaws turned out to be the scene featuring Anne and Wentworth’s final reconciliation on one of the streets of Bath. It could have been a wonderful and poignant moment . . . if it were not for the circus performers and pedestrians making a ruckus in the background. It nearly spoiled the romantic mood for me. And there were at least two performances that did not sit right with me. I will discuss them later. This version of ”PERSUASION” seemed to be the only adaptation that portrayed Mrs. Croft as the younger sister. Fiona Shaw, who is at least five years younger than Ciarán Hinds and looked it even with minimal makeup, portrayed his sister. Yet, both the 1971 and 2007 versions had cast an actress that was older than the actor portraying Wentworth. And I happened to know for a fact that at age 31, the Fredrick Wentworth character is at least seven (7) years younger than his sister. There is no way that the 42 year-old Hinds could have passed as a man eleven (11) younger, despite his handsome looks.

But my main problem with this adaptation turned out to be the same problem I had with the 2007 version – namely the character of William Elliot, Sir Walter’s heir presumptive. Because the baronet had no male issue, his baronetcy and the Kellynch estate will pass to William, his cousin. But William, fearing that Sir Walter might marry Mrs. Clay, the companion of the oldest Elliot daughter; schemed to woo and marry Anne in order to prevent Mrs. Clay from becoming Sir Walter’s second wife and protect his inheritance. As I had explained in my review of the 2007 version, this scenario failed to make any sense to me. Even if William had succeeded in preventing any marriage between Sir Walter and Mrs. Clay, there was no way he could consistently prevent the Elliot patriarch from considering another bride for matrimony. Even if he had married Anne. Quite frankly, it was a situation that had been beyond his control. Dear tried to give urgency to William’s situation by portraying him as financially broke after spending all of his late wife’s money. As far as I am concerned, Dear’s efforts to do this, by changing William’s financial situation failed. Sir Walter’s lawyer had made it clear around the beginning of the story that it would take years for Kellynch to recover from the Elliots’ debts. Nor did following Austen’s story by making William a romantic rival of Wentworth for Anne’s affections. She did not seem that impressed by William’s character, despite his charm and wit. If Dear had simply avoided Austen’s characterization of William Elliot and allowed him to retain his fortune; he could have been a formidable rival for Wentworth, just as Louisa Musgrove proved to be a strong rival for Anne in the story’s first half.

I cannot deny that ”PERSUASION” strongly benefited from the excellent performances of the two leads, Amanda Root and Ciarán Hinds. Root was superb as a sad and remorseful woman who began to bloom again over the possibility of a renewed love. With very little dialogue, she was excellent in a montage that featured her character’s reaction to the Musgroves’ carping over Anne’s younger sister, Mary Musgrove. But my favorite scene happened to featured Anne and Wentworth’s first meeting after eight years at Charles and Mary Musgrove’s cottage. With her eyes and body language, Root conveyed Anne’s series of emotions from seeing the naval officer again after so many years with great skill. Despite being a decade older than his character, Ciarán Hinds was equally impressive as Captain Frederick Wentworth, the successful Royal Navy officer who tried to hide his continuing resentment toward Anne’s rejection of him with a hearty manner and friendly overtures toward the Musgrove sisters – Louisa and Henrietta. One particular scene that impressed me featured Wentworth’s recollection of the year 1806 (the year Anne had rejected his marriage proposal). Hinds skillfully conveyed the character’s lingering resentment . . . and love for Anne in what struck me as a subtle moment.

Other excellent performances came from Sophie Thompson, who did a top-notch job as Anne’s younger sister, the emotionally clinging Mary Elliot Musgrove; Simon Russell Beale as Charles Musgrove, Mary’s consistently exasperated husband; Fiona Shaw, who wonderfully conveyed Sophia Wentworth Croft’s strong mind, along with her love for her husband and her role as a naval officer’s wife in a charming scene; and Susan Fleetwood, who have a complex performance in her last role as Anne’s well-meaning, yet prejudiced godmother, Lady Russell. But the one supporting performance that really impressed me came from Samuel West’s portrayal of the conniving William Elliot. He gave a deliciously smooth performance that radiated wit and charm. I found him so likeable that I almost felt sorry for him when Anne finally announced her engagement to Wentworth.

Unfortunately, not all of the performances impressed me. Despite my admiration for the late Corin Redgrave’s skills as an actor, I must admit that I found his portrayal of Anne’s narcissist and arrogant father, Sir Walter Elliot, a little off-putting. I realize that the character happened to be one of the outrageous characters in the novel. Unfortunately, Redgrave’s portrayal of Sir Walter’s narcissism seemed a little too mannered and broad. However, Redgrave’s Sir Walter seemed like a mild annoyance in compare to Phoebe Nicholls’ portrayal of the eldest Elliot sibling, Elizabeth. Nicholls portrayed the character as an over-the-top diva suffering from a damaged nervous system. I could not help but wonder if she had been on crack during the production. Or perhaps Michell was on crack for allowing such a performance to remain in the film.

Overall, ”PERSUASION” was an excellent adaptation of Jane Austen’s novel. Amanda Root and Ciarán Hinds’ performances, Nick Dear’s screenplay and Roger Michell’s direction infused the movie with a mature passion rarely touched upon in the adaptation of Austen’s other novels. Does this mean that I regard this movie as the best adaptation of Austen’s 1818 novel? No. Like the 2007 version, it had a number of flaws that prevented it from becoming ”the” best. But I must admit that it is pretty damn good.