Becky Sharp yearns for a more glamorous life than her birthright as an artist's daughter promises. Orphaned at an early age, with her French mother dying young and her artist father abandoning her, Becky ends up at an orphanage where she is educated in the ways of becoming a governess for the higher classes she so yearns. And through her hard won education and wily brains she finally lands a job as the governess for Sir Pitt Crawley. However, Sir Pitt is not quite the aristocrat she expected, with a brash and rough appearance, and that's just his abode. But she does her best to impress and it doesn't take her too long before Becky is starting to ascend the social ladder by making an impact on the hard faced, and hard to impress, Miss Matilda Crawley.
Latching on to her friend Amelia, and beginning with Sir Pitt Crawley's second son Rawdon, Becky begins her scheme to seduce her way to the top of society by any means possible. Using all her wit, guile and sexuality she travels in the right circles and rapidly climbs the ladder. And when she tells Rawdon that the only two men who will enter her bedroom are her husband and the doctor he's soon down on one knee proposing. Trouble is, the Crawley family does not take kindly to the marriage. Not that Becky is too concerned with their feelings, after all she's finally on that ladder she so aspired to.
But with Napoleon taking both Amelia's and Becky's husbands off to war, and with Rawdon encountering a few financial problems and a visit from the bailiffs along the way, can she stand by his side as his loving, but ultimately poor, wife, or will the lure of riches and a higher status in the social hierarchy be too much of a temptation for her to resist?
For a film of this genre with its large and lavish locations and multitudes of colour in both the sets and costumes, the transfer really needs to be something special in order to make it standout from the crowd. Fortunately, the picture is bright and colourful with a wonderful level of detail and a high bit-rate throughout. From the dark and grim streets of London, to the lavish interiors of the various halls and castles it's quite an impressive sight, with some solid black levels and good flesh tones. Although grain can be an occasional problem, especially during some of the darker lit interior scenes, the picture is free from any problems with artifacting or outlining whilst the print is clean with no signs of dust specks or other forms of picture imperfections.
If you ever needed an opening scene to set out the soundtrack for the rest of the film then you need look no further than Vanity Fair and its cracking 448 Kbps 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack. From the moment the haunting musical score and wonderful opening credits start you know where you stand with an musical score firmly planted in the front stereo and rear channels whilst the dialogue is firmly locked in the centre. Still, that doesn't mean that the rear channels are completely reserved for the musical score as when there is no music to be heard numerous ambient effects find their way to the rears. It's a simple approach, making it sound more like a radio four play, but it works remarkably well throughout the film.
The menu system is scored with a delightful classical tune from the film whilst the background is animated with various cut scenes from the film under the ever watchful eye of Becky. Selecting a menu option results in a nice transition effect to the next menu, although the subsequent menu is a static and silent affair. But in one extremely annoying feature of the menu system, which all Universal titles continue to use, is that they time out. Dwell too long on a menu and you'll soon find yourself watching the film again.
Extras wise, it's a bit of a mix bag really, although to be fair the extras will please fans of Vanity Fair and period dramas more than the casual viewer. The main extra on the disc has to be the Audio Commentary with Director Mira Nair. Reasonably interesting throughout, albeit with far too many long and silent periods which had me wondering whether she'd fallen asleep, Nair provides plenty of information on the cast, the script, filming techniques and the wonderful costumes and sets. It's also nice to hear the voice of woman director for a change too.
In the nine minute The Women Behind Vanity Fair featurette director Mira Nair, producer Donna Gigliotti and Reese Witherspoon amongst others discuss the classic story and the film in general. However, and as the title of the featurette suggests, it soon comes apparent that the vast majority of the producers, and naturally, the director are all female. But considering that this film is aimed at a mainly female audience it's not too unreasonable to expect such an unusual setup and that there's no better way of making a film for women from the women's perspective. Together with plenty of scenes from the film and some interesting points of view, it all adds up to quite an interesting promotional featurette.
In the eleven minute featurette Welcome to Vanity Fair director Mira Nair and most members of the cast, including Bob Hoskins (who exclaims that Reese Witherspoon's accent was so good he thought that she was English), Gabriel Byrne and Reese Witherspoon discuss the story. It turns out to be the usual backslapping promotional stuff with plenty of praise all around, but if you can put the annoying smarmy voiceover aside, it's interesting enough with plenty of behind the scenes action. There's also an abundance of scenes from the film but, for some odd reason, the picture quality is pretty abysmal and I can only assume that this promotional featurette was created mid-edit.
In what is an already overly long film there are fifteen minutes worth of Deleted and Extended Scenes to explore. Although time coded, the image transfer is first rate and on par with the main feature. Still, with the majority of these scenes only appearing to be slight cuts from the final version of the film it's actually quite hard to distinguish them from the actual scene in the film. They're also not the most exciting of deleted scenes you'll find on a DVD and really should only be watched by the hardcore of Vanity Fair fans. Things are rounded off with a collection of Theatrical Trailers for other Universal titles Wimbledon, Bridget Jones : The Edge of Reason, Love Actually and Billy Elliot the Musical. Oddly, there is no trailer for Vanity Fair.
If there's one thing to make a period drama shine then that has to be the costumes and the cinematography, and in the case of Vanity Fair both are truly remarkable. Even Reese Witherspoon's English accent is a credit to her acting abilities, especially after being pretty much typecast as a bit of an air-head in the strangely popular Legally Blonde films, and at times I was almost convinced she was indeed British. Still, if you ever needed to hear a good-old English cockney accent then there's no one better in the job than Sir Bob Hoskins. All he needed was a wheel barrel of fruit and vegetables or a suitably sooty chimney brush and he'd fit straight into any London period drama.
But even with the dramatic and impressive cinematography it was a hard slog to endure and, in a fairly rare occurrence for me at least, it didn't take me too long before I started to scan my watch or display the remaining time to see how much of the film was left. And it's a shame really as it's an interesting, but perhaps rather too much overdone, adaptation of William Makepeace Thackery's book and if it could have been trimmed down a little more it would have been worthy of the efforts. Trouble is, it's already a long story and it's difficult to see where the cuts could have been made. As a result, Vanity Fair should really only attract the attention of the fans, and given the reasonable selection of extras on offer, it all adds up to a fairly attractive package too.
- Audio Commentary with Director Mira Nair - The award-winning director shares her unique vision and personal inspirations in this insightful discussion
- Welcome to Vanity Fair - A behind the scenes look at bringing this timeless story to the big screen
- The Women Behind Vanity Fair - Reese Witherspoon, Mira Nair and producers Janette Day, Donna Gigliotti, and Lydia Dean Pilcher discuss how a team of women brought this story of an unforgettable woman to the big screen
- Deleted Scenes