Show name: Vanity Fair
Release date: 2018
Genre: Period drama
Starring: Olivia Cook, Tom Bateman, Johnny Flynn
Directed by: James Strong
Length: 7 episodes of 45 minutes
Vanity Fair is a period drama adaptation of the novel of the same name by William Makepeace Thackeray.
The book was published in instalments during 1847 and 1848 but it is set during the Napoleonic Wars in the run up to Waterloo and afterwards from 1814 to 1832.
I’m reviewing two different adaptations. The first, in 2018, starred Olivia Cooke as Rebecca Sharp and the second, 1998, starred Natasha Little in the lead role.
I’ve providing two full reviews because the plot changes quite a bit in respect of each adaptation and the names of several key characters are also different.
2018 TV Adaptation
The most recent TV adaptation of Vanity Fair stars Olivia Cooke as Becky.
After Becky’s school days come to an end, she lands a post as governess. But first the penniless orphan spends a few days at the home of her best friend Amelia Sedley (Claudia Jessie).
While in the Sedley home, Becky meets Jos, Amelia’s brother (David Fynn), and Amelia’s fiancé George Osborne (Charlie Rowe).
The portrayal of Becky is a very sympathetic one, so we are keen to see her find happiness with Jos, who is very taken with her. However, due to a drunken night out she narrowly fails.
Becky makes the best of it by going off to work as a governess as planned. She earns the good opinion of Sir Pitt Crawley (Martin Clunes) and finds the younger son Rawdon (Tom Bateman) attractive.
However, Pitt’s eldest son Bute (Matthew Baynton) and his wife Martha (Sian Clifford) resent Becky’s lively ways.
Becky wins Rawdon’s heart, but he is disinherited by his aunt (Frances de la Tour) after Martha’s plot comes to fruition. After that, the couple (penniless but much in love) must shift for themselves.
Rawdon is kind but useless with money, so it’s a good thing that Becky has her wits about her and can school him in how to live well on nothing a year.
This takes them to Brussels for the Battle of Waterloo, where Amelia’s husband is killed. Both Becky and Amelia are now pregnant, and Amelia must cope with widowhood and poverty as best she can. Becky’s star, on the other hand, is in the ascendancy.
Becky continues to see herself and Rawdon through their financial challenges with a spirit and resilience that makes her truly likeable. This is quite different from her portrayal in the book and in the 1998 TV adaption.
A modern audience is likely to see Becky as a more impressive person than the aristocratic family she marries into and the 2018 tv adaptation uses this emotional response as its foundation.
She is uncomplaining, open about her feelings and makes the best of every opportunity.
Other characters (such as Rawdon’s brother) become less sympathetic in order to give Becky more space to be the point-of-view character for whom we root throughout.
The tone of the 2018 adaptation was one of sincerity rather than the irony of the book and previous 1998 adaptation. I enjoyed this shift in tone very much and the 2018 version was more of a straight period drama and less of a comedy.
1998 TV Adaptation
The 1998 TV adaptation is faithful to the book, and it offers the stellar cast generally required to make British costume drama a world leader.
The overall tone is one of satire quite unlike most Victorian novels and their contemporary TV and film adaptations.
Becky Sharp (Natasha Little) is a resourceful young woman, the daughter of a drunken drawing master and an opera girl.
She can sing, speak fluent French and is beautiful and captivating.
After a spirited attempt to extract a marriage proposal from her best friend Amelia’s (Frances Grey) brother Joss (Jeremy Swift) that only narrowly fails, Becky goes to work as a governess in the home of a baronet.
The house is rundown, the baronet (David Bradley) is a skinflint with two sons. The dull one Pitt (Anton Lesser) and the rake Rawdon (Nathaniel Parker).
The whole situation is deliciously grotesque. When Becky isn’t being forced to survive by eating tripe, she’s fending off the attentions of the ageing baronet.
Becky is able to outmanoeuvre the Crawley family and she snares Rawdon.
Having won a noble husband has raised Becky’s social position immeasurably, but both are penniless. He is disinherited by his rich aunt (Miriam Margolyes) for marrying in secret.
The couple set up in Brighton and then London, using his skills as a cardsharp and her deviousness and intelligence to live well on ‘nothing a year’ in military circles, where Rawdon is a captain.
They also go to Brussels (the lovely scenes were filmed in Bruges) in the company of Amelia and her brother and Amelia’s new husband George (Tom Ward) and faithful friend William (Philip Glenister).
Amelia’s finances crumble and her husband is killed. She and Becky give birth to sons at around the same time, but the years ahead force them apart as Amelia struggles with poverty while Becky leases a house in Mayfair.
The original novel was both admiring and critical of a woman like Becky, penniless but able to rise socially by means of her street smarts and her beauty. TV and film adaptations have tended to treat Becky with more sympathy.
A Victorian readership would have seen an ambitious woman like Becky as unscrupulous, and it is certainly true that much of her behaviour is appalling. They would have felt her social advancement into a group that was admired at the time as being undeserved.
A modern interpretation, utilising the satire of the original novel, sees Becky as resourceful and inventive. She makes a great deal out of nothing at all, is far smarter than her noble husband and is far better to able to keep their family solvent.
Natasha Little’s portrayal of Becky is complex, and it manages to do justice to both her ruthlessness and penchant for lying and thieving as well as sympathetically establishing her as a woman who rose from nowhere who must support her husband by her own stratagems because he can’t provide for her and who is the victim of sexual aggression from one of the men she seeks to exploit. I particularly admired Little for doing her own singing and her talent was evident.
Becky Sharp is a complicated character who I always appreciate for her resilience and determination. The satire establishes the ridiculous nature of the unearned wealth and influence of the aristocracy she is able to infiltrate. I felt the same emotion watching the TV adaptation as I did reading the book: good for you, Becky Sharp.
Thank you for reading my review.
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