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Review: 'Vanity Fair' captivates audience

By Paul Clinton

James Purefoy and Reese Witherspoon in "Vanity Fair"
Reese Witherspoon
Mira Nair
William Makepeace Thackeray

(CNN) -- William Makepeace Thackeray's classic 19th-century serialized story "Vanity Fair" ends with the words, "Ah! vanitas vanitatum! (vanity of vanities!) Which of us is happy in this world? Which of us has his desire? Or, having it, is satisfied?"

To put that in today's much blunter vernacular, "Be careful what you wish for, baby, because you just may get it." That is the story of Becky Sharp, the heroine of "Vanity Fair."

Reese Witherspoon, 28 and the mother of two, is all grown up and making a serious bid for a best actress nomination with this role. She turns in a mature and engaging performance as Becky Sharp -- despite the disturbing fact that while her character supposedly ages from her mid-teens into her mid-thirties, her appearance barely changes.

Becky's hairstyles change and her cleavage increases, but overall not much suggests physical aging. But the character does age emotionally, thanks to Witherspoon's carefully layered performance.

Becky is a surprisingly modern --and stunningly ruthless -- character. Witherspoon, who packs a lot of punch in her 5-foot-2-inch frame, manages to provoke sympathy even as she leaves a wake of ruin. She climbs from the lowly position of the daughter of a starving artist and a French chorus girl to the peak of London's high society during the first quarter of the 19th century, only to fall -- and fail -- in a spectacular flameout of public scandal.

Becky's success is all the more impressive given the long-standing and rigid class structures of the time. Yet when it comes right down to it, she did it all the old-fashioned way -- sleeping her way to the top.

The film is directed by Mira Nair, a native of India and former documentary filmmaker, who is best known for her highly praised independent film "Monsoon Wedding" (2001).

It's interesting to note that the author of "Vanity Fair" was born in Calcutta in 1811 and was sent to England at the age of six. Both Nair (who left India to study at Harvard University) and Thackeray have a keen eye for finding and portraying the sharp cultural and socially satirical edges of everyday life.

The film's authenticity sweeps viewers away into another time and place, particularly in the London scenes and at the battle of Waterloo. The audience can almost taste the dirt and grime, sweat and smells of 19th-century London, making it evident that regardless of station -- whether beggar or king -- harsh conditions were a fact of life.

The attention to detail and the eye for color and textures by production designer Maria Djurkovic ("The Hours" and "Billy Elliot") and costume designer Beatrix Aruna Pasztor ("The Fisher King" and "Music Box") are remarkable.

All the supporting players are excellent, including, but not limited to, Bob Hoskins, Gabriel Byrne, Jonathan Rhys Meyers and Romola Garai.

The movie is adapted by Academy Award-winning screenwriter Julian Fellowes("Gosford Park") along with Matthew Faulk and Mark Skeet, who also serve as associate producers on the film. Adapting this 809-page novel to the screen was no mean feat, but the main plot points and story structure have remained intact.

The result is a highly satisfying period-style soap opera with heaving bosoms, elaborate hairdos and a sweeping look at history.

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