Vanity Fair, the adaptation of William Makepeace Thackeray’s serial novel, is a wonderful new version coming courtesy of Amazon and ITV, providing one of the best retellings of the story and a lead performance not to be missed. Written by Gwyneth Hughes and directed by James Strong (and Jonathan Entwistle in its sixth part), it’s a classic tale of rags to riches, where a young woman rises through the ranks of the social class as far as the world will take her.
Olivia Cooke is an undeniably perfect Becky Sharp, her knowing looks, clever delivery, and feisty, energetic performance in the role making this, in my mind, the top Miss Sharp of many adaptations. It opens upon her being compared to a viper, and over the course of the series we see just how far Becky will go to keep her growing standing. Her meteoric rise is juxtaposed to friend Amelia (Claudia Jessie), whose quest for true love leads down a very different path, and how intertwined they are as life carries on. Becky is always looking forward while everyone around her is in pain from the past. Cooke manages to make Becky always fascinating to watch, even as her deeds and trickery hurt those along the way.
The lavish, gorgeous production is always a joy to take in, from the excellent costumes to the beautiful rooms and lighting; it all captures the time and place immeasurably. Its use of pop songs is tasteful and elegantly done, only used as the main title and to close out the episode. The fifth episode has larger battle fare, surprisingly robust in its presentation, engaging to see those away at war while those on the sidelines worry and swindle. It’s a very well-acted series, Tom Bateman playing a charming Rawdon Crawley, who tries to keep up with Becky but always feels so many steps behind.
Its sense of humor is class-based and layered with satire and sarcasm, playing at the standing of someone in both social worth and keeping one’s attention. One of the more fun sequences early in its run is the arrival of the Crawley aunt (wonderfully played by Frances de la Tour), whose matter-of-fact demeanor and disregard for everyone beyond Becky and Rawdon is a treat to watch. It’s a wink and a nod adaptation with a lighthearted and carefree attitude, just like Becky. But the more serious aspects of the later sections are handled with care, the impact on the characters remains the focal point and are handled gracefully. The whimsical nature—despite the threat of the Napoleonic wars in the back half—is an invigorating time, where its victors excel and its fallen are treated only as well as their worth. Those momentous times all have their consequences.
In a sea of adaptations, 2018’s Vanity Fair rises to the top through Cooke’s large performance and its tight attention to the mood of the piece. For as high as those might ascend, their fall will be just as long. It’s in keeping to a playful tone, even as it grows more serious in its later hours, where it becomes a well-deserved adaptation and delivers one of the best of 2018.
Vanity Fair aired on ITV in the UK and the CBC in Canada in September 2018. It arrives on Amazon’s Prime Video on December 21st. The seven episode miniseries was provided for review.
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