Seen at the Movies: William Thackeray’s 900-page novel Vanity Fair may just be unfilmable, but I remember with affection a 1970s Masterpiece Theatre adaptation starring Susan Hampshire as a hard-eyed Becky Sharp, clawing her way up the early 19th-century British social ladder with single-minded self-interest. Rouben Mamoulian’s 1935 version, Becky Sharp, the first feature film in three-strip Technicolor, isn’t much of a movie, but the director’s command of crowd choreography and color, particularly in a centerpiece ball sequence, is still impressive. Which brings us to Mira Nair’s Vanity Fair, the latest attempt to wrestle Thackeray’s massive work to the cinematic ground. Best known for such colorful if somewhat flat depictions of contemporary life in India as Salaam Bombay! and Monsoon Wedding, Nair shows her inadequacy to the task at hand in any scene comprising more than a few front-and-center actors. An examination of the aforementioned ball sequence, which is interrupted by the advance of Napoleon’s troops, is instructive: where Mamoulian provided a dazzling swirl of movement leading to a cresting panic, Nair stages the same action inertly, as a succession of pretty pictures with little visual or dramatic force. She just doesn’t have the directorial chops for this kind of thing.

The young and the old in Vanity Fair photo: Focus Features

What the filmmaker does have is a talent for lightly satiric scenes of social interaction, which means she’s on fairly confident footing in the movie’s early scenes, as Becky Sharp (Reese Witherspoon) starts her climb from orphaned poverty as children’s tutor in a household of decayed British nobility. Here, she comes across such estimable performers as Bob Hoskins and Eileen Atkins as her employer and his spinster sister. Atkins steals every scene she’s in playing a woman who professes to delight in Becky’s wit and slightly scandalous origins, but is secretly too snobbish to countenance her marriage to a beloved nephew (James Purefoy). The confused romantic tone Nair interjects with this relationship becomes a drag on the movie as it progresses, and the second half lurches from year to year, setting to setting, and subplot to subplot, leaving loose ends lying about everywhere until the movies just fades to a stop. Witherspoon is likable as ever, which poses a bit of a problem: the movie seems determined to reform Thackeray’s heroine, make her more acceptable to the average filmgoer’s palate. What this Vanity Fair ends up with is an fairly incoherent characterization of Becky Sharp, and thus of the society that produces her.

Vanity Fair photo: Focus Features

DP Declan Quinn works hard to make the film a golden, candlelit feast for the eyes, and he often succeeds despite Nair’s compositional deficiencies. Maria Djurkovic’s production design expertly delineates the period’s social strata in England, from back alley hovel to crumbling country house to nouveau riche salon. The parade of eye-popping costumes, by Beatrix Aruna Pasztor, represents the movie’s most consistent diversion, even if they dip rather questionably at times into Bollywood-style decorative frippery.--John Calhoun