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CGI-enhanced Vanity Fair looks sharp, but lacks heart

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

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.

Macro alias: ModuleRenderer

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.