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Universal Studios Home Video presents
"Revenge may be wicked, but it's perfectly natural."
DVD ReviewIt's not fair that only men should be able to take on a role that seems to encompass the entirety of the human person. Male actors can look forward to Hamlet, but what character offers this opportunity to women? William Makepeace Thackeray's Becky Sharp. As the heroine of Vanity Fair, Miss Sharp doesn't necessarily offer insanity, but this extraordinary character displays a depth and intelligence that leads one to wonder why there haven't been a series of film adaptations from the novel.
Becky Sharp (Reese Witherspoon) grew up in 19th-century London as the daughter of a widower. Despite this notable drawback, her immense ambition and indelible charm push her through society's classes. Initially the mischievous lady is the governess for Sir Pitt Crawley (Bob Hoskins), an impoverished man whose estate is unenviable. Yet, where others may find disgust, Becky sees an opportunity. She renovates the Crawley estate and finds favor with Sir Pitt's elder, wealthy sister, Miss Matilda (Eileen Crawley). More importantly, the vivacious beauty manages to hatch a romantic affair with Sir Pitt's debonair son, Col. Rawdon Crawley (James Purefoy). Almost on a whim, Becky seduces the entire Crawley family into accepting her as Rawdon's wife, and thus Becky Sharp successfully transforms herself into society's Mrs. Crawley.
There is much more to Thackeray's novel than the story of a social climber. There's Becky's closest friend, Amelia Sedley (Romola Garai), and the tragedy that befalls her. There's also the presence of the mysterious Marquess of Stayne (Gabriel Byrne), who takes an interest in Becky. However, I shall refrain from any further mentioning of these story events, for I cannot relay them to you with as much clarity as director Mira Nair does. Nair and her screenwriters successfully enfold history and fiction, bringing the Napoleonic Wars and British colonization of India into full focus with this domestic drama. Even better, Nair understands the humor of the story. There's a lovely naughtiness to Becky's tale, which the score—by Mychel Danna—highlights by its constantly changing beats and rhythms. Even though the costumes and sets clearly set the film in the past, the filmmaking gives it a freshness that is infectious.
The camera moves with the kind of epic sweep of a 1957 CinemaScope production, but Nair also uses handheld footage effectively during key dining scenes. At no time does the film lag due to static staging, thereby keeping the story moving forward at a lightning fast pace. Yet technical proficiency is not enough to accurately capture Vanity Fair's essence. Every single actor fits their part perfectly, which is saying a lot, since there are a tremendous number of characters for the audience to remember.
The biggest surprise and success of the film is Reese Witherspoon's performance. She masters the English accent with apparent ease, but what is so astounding about her performance are her facial expressions. Look carefully at a scene late in the film, when Becky discusses her future with Crawley while looking into a mirror. The way Witherspoon slightly manipulates her expressions is some of the best physical acting to be put on the screen all of last year.
Is Vanity Fair your standard piece of classic British literature, something that will put high school students to sleep? Absolutely not, because it is alive with the perspective of contemporary insights into materialism and it's a marvelous piece of feminist art, though I'll leave that discussion to the literary scholars. This is an awe-inspiring adaptation of Thackeray's beloved novel that should not be missed by anyone.
Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: A
Image Transfer Review: The original 2.35:1 aspect ratio is given a nice, though flawed, transfer. Detail and depth are strong, creating a pleasant film-like look. Colors are vibrant and contrast is also solid. Blacks look gorgeous, particularly during the opening titles. However, Becky's introduction to Amelia's family is grainy and some print defects occur throughout the film, though not enough to be terribly distracting. It's a good picture, but some problems are evident.
Image Transfer Grade: B+
Audio Transfer Review: The Dolby Digital 5.1 mix is an engrossing mix, with the voice-over narration and score getting really great treatment. Directionality and sound separation are used well, opening up the mix but not in a distracting way. Dialogue is easily audible and there are some nice instances of phantom imaging between the surround speakers. Very nice work. There also is a French Dolby Digital mix.
Audio Transfer Grade: A
Disc ExtrasFull Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 18 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, French, Spanish with remote access
1 Other Trailer(s) featuring Focus Features Promotional Trailer
7 Deleted Scenes
1 Alternate Endings
1 Feature/Episode commentary by Mira Nair
Layers Switch: 01h:24m:03s
Extras Review: Accompanying the fine presentation of the feature film, the extras are a nice treat. First is an audio commentary by Mira Nair. She is clearly an intelligent and thoughtful individual, which helps to make this a fascinating listen. She weaves between her own view of Thackeray's novel, anecdotes about shooting, and some of the ideas that went into the film seamlessly. This is one of the better commentaries I have heard in a while.
Following that is a collection of Deleted Scenes (14m:12s), which play together in nonanamorphic 2.35:1 widescreen. The majority of the seven scenes were wisely cut, though the alternate ending might actually be superior to the current one.
There are also two featurettes about the making of the film. Welcome to Vanity Fair (11m:33s) is a publicity piece from the movie's theatrical release. It contains interviews with assorted members of the cast and crew, with Bob Hoskins giving an entertaining anecdote about meeting Reese Witherspoon. Otherwise, this is a fairly by-the-numbers featurette. The second featurette, The Women Behind Vanity Fair (09m:07s), is a much more interesting look at the behind-the-scenes process. It makes note of the development of the project and Nair's crew, which was nearly all women. There are also some storyboards displayed in the featurette, giving it a comprehensive (albeit brief) overview to the film.
Additionally, prior to the menu starting, there is a preview for Focus Features' DVD line that aims at promoting the small studio.
Extras Grade: B+
Final CommentsA gorgeous feast for the eyes, Vanity Fair is also an intellectual treasure chest. This DVD features strong audio and visual transfers, plus a nice collection of extras.
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