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

How this remarkable native insect is being saved
104836 2019-04-20 00:00:00Z Planet

How this remarkable native insect is being saved

by Jenny Nicholls

Principles of bird conservation are helping to save another remarkable native you’ve never heard of.

Read more
Environment Ministry 'unashamedly proud' of bleak report's honesty
104868 2019-04-20 00:00:00Z Planet

Environment Ministry 'unashamedly proud' of bleak…

by RNZ

The Secretary for the Environment Vicky Robertson said she was proud of the report's honesty and it was an important stocktake for the country.

Read more
The new What We Do in the Shadows is more dad joke than demonic
104712 2019-04-19 00:00:00Z Television

The new What We Do in the Shadows is more dad joke…

by Diana Wichtel

Diana Wichtel reviews a new American TV series based on the hit Kiwi comedy.

Read more
Louis & Louise is a satisfying exploration of gender and identity
104230 2019-04-19 00:00:00Z Books

Louis & Louise is a satisfying exploration of gend…

by Brigid Feehan

In her latest novel, Julie Cohen traces the parallel male and female lives of a single character.

Read more
Win a copy of Sir David Attenborough's Life on Earth: 40th Anniversary Edition
104844 2019-04-19 00:00:00Z Win

Win a copy of Sir David Attenborough's Life on Ear…

by The Listener

To celebrate Sir David Attenborough season on Sky, we are giving away copies of his book Life on Earth: 40th Anniversary Edition.

Read more
The Kiwi behind the powerful Aspen Institute's Queenstown launch
104788 2019-04-18 09:00:50Z Profiles

The Kiwi behind the powerful Aspen Institute's Que…

by Clare de Lore

Thanks to the determination of Christine Maiden, NZ has joined an international leadership network that aims to work on issues important to the future

Read more
Science must trump ideology in the GE debate
104784 2019-04-18 08:52:29Z Politics

Science must trump ideology in the GE debate

by The Listener

A New Zealand-developed super-grass that appears to drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions might be blocked in this country by the Green Party.

Read more
Simon Bridges hails PM Jacinda Ardern's capital gains tax u-turn as victory
104803 2019-04-18 00:00:00Z Politics

Simon Bridges hails PM Jacinda Ardern's capital ga…

by Jo Moir

The National Party is calling the u-turn on a capital gains tax a massive failure for the Prime Minister.

Read more