CGI-enhanced Vanity Fair looks sharp, but lacks heart

by Diana Wichtel / 04 October, 2018
Tom Bateman as Rawdon Crawley and Olivia Cooke as Becky Sharp in Vanity Fair.

Tom Bateman as Rawdon Crawley and Olivia Cooke as Becky Sharp in Vanity Fair.

RelatedArticlesModule - Vanity Fair tv

The television adaptation of William Makepeace Thackeray's Vanity Fair is a bit like Becky Sharp: audacious, entertaining, but lacking some essential element.

“All is vanity, nothing is fair.” William Makepeace Thackeray pretty much had life nailed back in 1848. His sly, satiric masterpiece, Vanity Fair, evokes a world of “humbug, falseness and pretention” beset by all manner of knaves, blackguards and quacks. Gad! The great novelist might have been following Trump’s Twitter feed. The book hardly needs updating but that’s what happens to the classics so hey, Amazon, knock yourself out.

This adaptation has a science fiction-y vibe, thanks to slightly unnerving computer-generated vistas of 19th-century London. You half expect to see the Tardis touch down in the Vauxhall pleasure gardens or an army of Daleks roll through Russell Square. Even the habitués of social media expect a break from high-tech on a costume drama. “Oh hello CGI London, you look very clean,” went one tweet. “The way this is going (contemporary music, overlit, CGI), I wouldn’t be surprised to see Becky texting someone soon,” moaned another.

Well, she’s a communicator. Becky Sharp remains one of the great characters of English literature: talented, impudent, power-hungry as any man. Unsinkable and, ultimately, unthinkable. You can admire her up to a point; that point, for me, is (spoiler alert) her heartless treatment of her little son, Rawdy.

This time, she’s played by Olivia Cooke, who adds conspiratorial looks to camera to the casts’ obligatory armoury of smug smiles and period smirking. Episode one begins with a cover version of All Along the Watchtower. The second ends with Madonna’s Material Girl.

Such liberties. It works because the novel still reads as strangely modern and meta, with its narrator-as-puppeteer. This production has Michael Palin standing in for Thackeray himself, directing the carnival.

I’m buying it. Becky’s friend, Amelia Sedley, is enough of a soft-hearted nincompoop and the Sedleys’ servant, Sam (a welcome change from “Sambo” in the novel) is terrific, alert to Becky’s social-climbing wiles and present to hear, and flinch at, Mr Sedley’s casual racism.

Suranne Jones’ schoolmistress, Miss Pinkerton, is arctic enough but lacks the majestic pomposity required for the book’s beturbaned “Semiramis of Hammersmith”. David Flynn does better with Amelia’s brother Jos, the collector of Boggley Wollah, a man who will let nothing get between him and high tea: “Oh! Tiffin!” Lowly-born Becky, who wants a piece of all this unearned privilege, has set her cap for him. He’s an idiot. How hard can it be? His calamitous attempts to woo her while drunk on rack punch – “My dearest soul! My diddle-diddle-darling!” – are hilarious and portentous. As Thackeray writes, “That bowl of rack punch was the cause of all this history. And why not a bowl of rack punch as well as any other cause?”

Indeed. Thus Becky is packed off to be a governess at the home of Sir Pitt Crawley, played with loutish glee – even CGI couldn’t clean up Sir Pitt – by Martin Clunes. But when it comes to stealing the show you can’t get past the louche comedic skills of Frances de la Tour. She plays the entire British class system in the form of Sir Pitt’s rich sister, Matilda. She pretends to be progressive and all in favour of people running recklessly off to get married. We shall see. The entire family are waiting for her to drop off the perch so they can get their hands on her fortune. She knows it and it makes her a tyrant.

The series so far is a bit like Becky Sharp: audacious, entertaining but lacking some essential element that would give it a beating heart. In the opening credits we see her riding a carousel with her betters, howling like the carnivorous creature the world has made her.

Vanity Fair, TVNZ 1, Sunday, 8.30pm.

This article was first published in the October 6, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

Latest

Are FitBits a boon for your health – or a threat to your privacy?
107343 2019-06-20 00:00:00Z Health

Are FitBits a boon for your health – or a threat t…

by Donna Chisholm

One in five New Zealanders owns a fitness tracker, but what effect do they have? Donna Chisholm investigates.

Read more
Larry Smarr: The world's most self-measured man
107358 2019-06-20 00:00:00Z Health

Larry Smarr: The world's most self-measured man

by Donna Chisholm

A US computer scientist who has been monitoring the state of his health for nearly two decades says he’s healthier now than he’s been in 15 years.

Read more
The most common scams – and how to avoid them
107425 2019-06-20 00:00:00Z Tech

The most common scams – and how to avoid them

by Joanna Wane

"Dear Beloved Friend"....

Read more
The National get in touch with their feminine side in I Am Easy to Find
107163 2019-06-19 00:00:00Z Music

The National get in touch with their feminine side…

by James Belfield

As The National announce two intimate theatre shows in Auckland, James Belfield reviews their brave and collaborative new album.

Read more
German violinist Carolin Widmann brings her daring style to NZ
107272 2019-06-19 00:00:00Z Music

German violinist Carolin Widmann brings her daring…

by Elizabeth Kerr

The award-winning musician will make her NZSO debut playing Stravinsky’s only violin concerto.

Read more
In defence of NZ Rugby boss Steve Tew
107277 2019-06-19 00:00:00Z Sport

In defence of NZ Rugby boss Steve Tew

by Paul Thomas

Naysayers may rail against rugby’s continued “corporatisation” under Steve Tew, but he’s given them plenty to applaud as well.

Read more
How New Zealand's community newspapers are bucking the trend
107362 2019-06-19 00:00:00Z Life in NZ

How New Zealand's community newspapers are bucking…

by Venetia Sherson

Community newspapers are bucking the trend, as enterprising new owners breath life back into them.

Read more
What filmmaker Andrea Bosshard learned from her goldsmith father Kobi
107381 2019-06-19 00:00:00Z Life in NZ

What filmmaker Andrea Bosshard learned from her go…

by Ken Downie

Filmmaker Andrea Bosshard inherited a creative streak from her goldsmith father Kobi but he also taught her an important life lesson.

Read more