A Passage to India

England made me: James Purefoy (left) and Reese Witherspoon in 'Vanity Fair'
Focus Features

As the late cultural critic Edward Said reminded us in 1993's Culture and Imperialism, the wealth on display in 19th-century English drawing room novels had to be drawn from somewhere--all that mannered largesse hinged on the spoils of empire. You couldn't run a Howard's End without African rubber, a Mansfield Park without Antiguan cane. William Makepeace Thackeray and his mid-century cohorts, Said wrote, "accepted a globalized world view and indeed could not (in most cases did not) ignore the vast overseas reach of British power." Director Mira Nair was certainly attracted to Thackeray's soap opera of class mobility in some ways because there could be no Vanity Fair without India. In her predictably sumptuous version of the oft-filmed classic, the novel's emerging Brit bourgeoisie fake their funk and hatch their marital schemes in rich Indian fabrics, daring their guests with hot curries, picnicking amid tabla beats and sanitized Punjab pageantry.

Of course, Nair's celebratory aesthetic has consistently pedaled a post-post-colonial optimism that glosses discontent. In 2001, her big fat Monsoon Wedding avoided any of the exhilarating pathos of Israeli Dover Koshashvilli's similar Late Marriage, and predictably won the hearts of Zagat's adventurers dreaming of safe middle-class globalism. While no Merchant Ivory curio, Vanity Fair does go in for the kind of surface melodrama and patented heavy-handed "sensualism" that misses opportunities for nuance and topples into kitsch.

Still, Said would appreciate that the enterprising Brit at the center of Thackeray's thicket is here played by the hard-chargingest sweetheart America has to offer. As the half-French social climber Becky Sharpe (a rags-to-riches Elle Woods), Reese Witherspoon remakes our dicey heroine for the sex-and-the-city age, playing her with the same blinkered ambition that made Tracy Flick in Election a memorably naive monster. The fact that Witherspoon never quite inhabits her quaint throwback world like a Winslet or Bonham-Carter is a concession wrested from us early on. In scenes with the incandescently demure Romola Garai (Becky's beleaguered best friend Amelia) Witherspoon seems like a Day-Glo colorform stuck on the frame.

Once you get used to this, though, there's pleasure to be had. If the hilarious extolling of Becky's charm starts to seem like damage control (or an imperial tithe), the screenwriters, including Gosford Park's Julian Fellowes, ably preserve the novel's snootiest slights. James Purefoy smolders as Rawdon Crawley, the rakish army officer who loses his inheritance by marrying Becky (a bedroom scene where his hand simply lazes inside the back of Becky's unzipped gown is a tingling endorsement of Nair's Kama Sutra instinct). Gabriel Byrne is a menacing, if ghostly, sugar daddy, and Jonathan Rhys Meyers, as narcissist George Osborne, is sneeringly delicious in his dandy martial trusses.

But though Nair takes pains to differentiate Jim Broadbent's narrow Mr. Osbourne from Bob Hoskins's bumbling Sir Pitt Crawley, and Eileen Atkins's faux-eccentric Miss Crawley from Geraldine McEwan's fussy Lady Southdown, they grow mustily similar as petty grudges maunder on. Discrete phyla in the snob taxonomy begin to blur. (Rawdon and George's identical hot emo haircuts don't increase their definition either). What remains vivid throughout is Nair's palette. In what film buffs might see as a hat-tip to Becky Sharpe--the 1935 version in which Miriam Hopkins played second fiddle to the debut of the Technicolor process--Nair ensures that her 19th-century England (Bath plays London) explodes with color. From verdant wallpaper murals to heaving citrine bodices, the imported hues of conquered cultures saturate.

Even with such attention to Vanity Fair's authentic Orientalism, the film could probably have shouldered an even more revisionist acknowledgement of oppression--of colonial subjects and women alike. Hegemonists sustain only the most polite ribbing, as Nair pokes fun at the likes of Joseph Sedley (Tony Maudsley), an India-dwelling nincompoop of scrimping aristocrat stock who drapes himself in exotic gear, and the dull Mr. Dobbin (Rhys Ifans), who goes native while in self-imposed exile. In a final scene shot in India, however, the tipping point does seem to loom for colonial intruders happily swaying in baskets atop ankle-braceletted elephants. It's fun to imagine this striking image of the pachyderm's painful servitude to the Raj as a call to liberate the noble beasts from their shameful employ as present-day symbolic servants to the GOP--to set free this herd of innocents on whose backs ride the wags of empire.

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