tue 28/05/2024

Vanity Fair, ITV review - seductions of social climbing | reviews, news & interviews

Vanity Fair, ITV review - seductions of social climbing

Vanity Fair, ITV review - seductions of social climbing

Much fun at Thackeray's fair: Gwyneth Hughes rolls out an accomplished romantic romp

'Pert and pretty in equal measure': Olivia Cooke as Becky SharpImages Robert Viglansky

Emcee Michael Palin, as William Makepeace Thackeray himself, introduces us to the show: “Yes, this is Vanity Fair; not a moral place certainly; nor a merry one, though very noisy.” All his major characters – or “puppets” – are riding a fairground carousel. They – and very soon, we – are having a great time.

Vanity Fair – the title comes from The Pilgrim’s Progress, in which the town of Vanity holds a year-round fair – charts the uncertain progress of a minx called Becky Sharp (Olivia Cooke, pert and pretty in equal measure, main picture). First seen giving lip to her elder and better Miss Pinkerton (Suranne Jones, eyes aglitter behind little round specs), it is immediately established Becky is not like the other young ladies at her academy. “My other pony is a palomino,” trills one posho to another. Becky is neither well-born nor wealthy. Her bosom buddy Amelia Sedley (Claudia Jessie, doing her best to give the goody-goody girl some oomph) is both.

Virtue may be commendable but vice is more fun

The most remarkable thing about Gwyneth Hughes’s adaptation is how faithful it is to the spirit of Thackeray’s 700-page novel. It is self-conscious (Becky occasionally gives a side-long glance to the camera), satirical – the soldier-boys heading to the battlefields of Waterloo would be right at home in the Bullingdon Club – and, just when it needs to be, comical and touching. Virtue may be commendable but vice is more fun.

Becky, determined that tomorrow should be better than today, every day, makes no secret of the fact she is on the make. Having left Miss Pinkerton’s academy behind – and chucked her, and Amelia’s, parting gifts (miniature editions of Dr Johnson’s Dictionary) out of the carriage window – she sets about seducing Amelia’s brother Jos who has made a fortune collecting taxes in the Indian backwater of Boggley-Wallah. Until he claps eyes on Becky he has never been interested in women.VANITY FAIRAs the “lardy loafer” – the words are his father’s (Simon Russell Beale) – David Fynn lends Jos some pathos after he disgraces himself. He and George Osborne (Charlie Rowe – young Tommy in Never Let Me Go has grown up!), Amelia’s childhood chum and suitor, invite their faithful friend Captain Dobbin to join them all for “a night of pleasuring” at Vauxhall Gardens. Decent Dobbin, played by Johnny Flynn – half-brother of Jerome – is secretly in love with Amelia. Imagine, if you will, a younger Boris Johnson after a month at a high-security fat-farm. (Pictured above, from left, Tom Bateman, Charlie Rowe, Olivia Cooke, Johnny Flynn, Claudia Jessie)

There is a balloon ride, fireworks, lots of drink and – for little orphan Becky – disappointment. George persuades Jos to drop his darling and disappear. Even Sam (Richie Campbell), the Sedley’s black servant, sees through the social climber, calling her “Little Miss Who Does She Think She Is?”. “Better luck in your next life,” says George as she takes her leave of the Sedleys’ house in Russell Square. He doesn’t mean it.

Becky, true to her name, retains her edge: “Moving on is something I do know how to do.” That evening she is already fending off the advances of Sir Pitt Crawley (Martin Clunes) who has employed her as a governess. His eldest son, self-serving Rawdon Crawley (Tom Bateman, a man who fills his britches), turns up in the last minute. Let’s hope we see much more of him in Monday’s second episode.

Once upon a time people read Thackeray to learn how those a couple of notches above them in the class system lived and loved. Hughes (Five Days, The Mystery of Edwin Drood) invites us to mock the snobbery and racism of Regency England. As a pleasure ground Vanity Fair may be an immoral place but Thackeray, tongue-in-cheek, always ensured vice was punished and virtue rewarded. If Hughes maintains this tightrope walk between comedy and tragedy over the remaining six episodes of this ITV-Amazon coproduction, her romantic romp – stylishly directed by James Strong (Broadchurch) – will soon deserve the full five stars.

If Hughes maintains this tightrope walk between comedy and tragedy her romantic romp will soon deserve the full five stars


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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