William Thackeray's classic romance novel supreme Vanity Fair has proved irresistible to television producers of 24-part mini-series for the BBC and the like—with about a decade or so passing between tasteful adaptations—but as far as I can recall, one has to reach back to 1935 to find a big-screen version. That account, named after the novel's scheming title character, Becky Sharp, is notable today as the first movie in three-strip Technicolor, a typical over-the-top performance by Miriam Hopkins and director Rouben Mamoulian's dramatic use of the color red.
Red is also prominent in this new filming of Vanity Fair. Ringed in red curls, often dressed in the same color and at times wandering through plush red velvet rooms, Reese Witherspoon plays Becky, the artist's daughter who rises from her humble but artistic beginnings to the upper strata of society in what appears to be record time. Over the credits we hear 'She Walks In Beauty' but actually she runs—it seems that within minutes Witherspoon has scurried up that social ladder, claimed her handsome bodice ripper of a lover for a husband (and isn't Rawdon Crawley the all-time perfect character name for a British rake?) and is soon scheming to get More More More. That old star sickness again and we are not yet a half hour into the movie.
Perhaps one reason for the long lag between theatrical versions of the novel becomes apparent at this point—the episodic twists and turns in the plot and especially the character of the nearly psychopathic Becky Sharp—defy the shorter running time. This is material that needs lots of breathing room to explain the lightning changes in Becky's character. Here, Witherspoon seems to have an assortment of split personalities which change from scene to scene: first she is sweet and coquettish, next world weary, then conniving and flirtatious. But the movie doesn't take the time to explain the changes and more, why Becky cares so much for social climbing. Instead, we seem to be in the midst of a malevolent, dark flipside to the Cinderella story with more than a dash of Gone With The Wind tossed in for good measure. This pretty music box of a movie is certainly dressed up but unlike its anti-heroine, seems to be in no hurry to get anywhere.
Witherspoon's Becky does seem to be a British cousin to Scarlet O'Hara and she does an admirable job with her British accent and displays a splendid bust in the Empire-waisted gowns. She is aided by what seems to be the entire cast of Gosford Park, yet another tale of class distinction that owed much to Vanity Fair, headed by Eileen Atkins, portraying Becky's peppery benefactress (the script is also by Gosford's scribe, Julian Fellowes). Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, who first came to prominence as the bisexual Brian Slade in Velvet Goldmine, plays the über-snob George Osborne with a shock of dark ostrich feathers for hair and a sneer from his pouty lips. He's just the first of many of the beautiful, poisonous people ready to trip up Becky on her way to the top.
More interesting than Becky's ultimate fate, however is why Witherspoon, after the failure of The Importance of Being Earnest, would go forward with yet another costume picture. Unlike many Dickens and Austen heroes and heroines from countless movies, Thackeray's Vanity Fair doesn't tip the balance in favor of its main character—and though the enigma that is Becky Sharp makes for a great, complex read she's not a character that easily leaps off the page. And the idea that the book's actually a disguised feminist tract that Witherspoon and director Mia Nair (following up her successful Monsoon Wedding) have suggested in interviews seems fanciful. Becky's a social psychopath who always gets what she wants.
Is that the real reason why this sumptuous but ultimately empty Faberge goose egg of a movie got made? Isn't that always the reason these movies get made? Because through some fluke of timing, talent and marketing, someone made a movie or two that broke all box office records and then had the clout to get what they wanted? Just think of the endless vanity projects suddenly bankable stars have made over the years and then think of Vanity Fair. Compared to The Wiz, The Postman, Battlefield Earth and Beloved, Witherspoon has comported herself admirably.
Like slasher films, serial killer movies have rules, too. For example, stay out of New Mexico or anywhere in the southwest. Don't go near any roadside diners, gas stations or cheap motel rooms after sunset. Avoid semi trucks at all costs. All serial killers have an artistic side and write in notebooks, scratching their feelings down with pens or charcoal markers that make a lot of noise. Many of them speak quietly and are seemingly polite until their violent side ERUPTS.
Suspect Zero is a weary combination of two serial killer flicks, Seven and Manhunter and the mixture is not particularly potent, but then at this point what serial killer flick is? As these films have piled up so have their body counts, until audiences don't bat an eye when the death toll is in the hundreds, as it is here. And why does every actor in Hollywood have a yen to play a mass murderer? The names of A-list actors in the serial killer club includes Keanu Reeves, Robin Williams, Ken Spacey, and of course, Anthony Hopkins. Ben Kingsley gets the role here, though I suspect that the second Oscar that has long eluded him will not be forthcoming for this part? One cannot forget Charlize Theron in last year's Monster as real-life serial killer Aileen Wuornos in HER Oscar-winning role.
But that's where the fictional and the non-fictional part company—the real-life tale of Wuornos wasn't so easily shrugged off, though, thankfully, Suspect Zero is.