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'Vanity Fair' is a Binge-worthy Victorian Delight
December 21, 2018  | By David Hinckley  | 1 comment

It wouldn’t be the platinum age of television without a steady flow of British period dramas, the kinds that are visual feasts even when the plots contain a lot of empty calories.

Vanity Fair, a seven-episode adaptation of William Thackeray’s classic Victorian yarn, packs plenty of dramatic nourishment, to torture that metaphor a bit, alongside a great look.

It will be served beginning Friday on Amazon Prime.

Olivia Cooke (top) plays Becky Sharp, a young woman who comes from what the Victorians considered questionable stock: showbiz. She got a taste of the aristocratic life, however, when the headmistress of Miss Pinkerton’s finishing school, in a rare moment of charity, let Becky attend.

Becky likes the taste and lands a post-graduation job as a teacher at Miss Pinkerton’s. She blows it, however, by telling Miss Pinkerton (played with a delightful chill by Suranne Jones, left) that she sees through the hollow world of the detached, entitled rich.

Miss Pinkerton exiles her to the dead-end job of governess to a crude mid-level aristocrat, Sir Pitt Crawley (Martin Clunes). But the irrepressible Becky has no intention of spending her days teaching a rich guy’s kids in the middle of nowhere.

She’s out to snag a rich guy, which creates a different situation than we usually find in period dramas. Or any other dramas.

We like Becky. We sympathize with her situation, and Thackeray has a deft touch for capturing the many ways in which Victorians – sadly, not alone – demeaned and degraded those they considered their social inferiors.

Neither, on the other hand, does Becky always behave admirably. That’s the reason Thackeray, who originally wrote Vanity Fair as a 19-episode monthly magazine serial, subtitled the finished novel A Story Without a Hero.

That means Vanity Fair has to work a little harder to get us hooked, and creator/writer Gwyneth Hughes is generally up to the task. The dialogue is sprinkled with wit, and Becky’s sharp tongue enlivens most of her conversations, particularly when she’s not trying to seduce the nearest rich guy.

If it’s not clear by now, Vanity Fair was conceived as a satire on Victorian attitudes. So Thackeray naturally created a large cast, to lampoon or sometimes just acknowledge as many Victorian characters as possible.

This includes Becky’s best friend Amelia (Claudia Jessie, right), the only girl at Miss Pinkerton’s who seems to agree with Becky that the whole goal of preparing girls to be rich airheads is annoying.

Amelia also wants to marry rich. The difference is that Amelia comes from the class where that’s the natural course of her life. The further difference is that Amelia happens to love a man of "inferior breeding," the soldier George Osborne (Charlie Rowe).

So her life and Becky’s course their way through many cross-currents, one of which brings Becky to another soldier, Rawdon Crawley (Tom Bateman, left, with Cooke). He’s the son of Sir Pitt, whose vision for Rawdon does not include marrying a daughter from a showbiz family. In fact, Sir Pitt has his own vision for Becky, and there are no prizes for guessing what that might be.

Period satire often isn’t as immediately accessible as period visuals, so there are no doubt aspects of Thackeray’s vision that seemed more clever in 1848 than they seem 170 years later.

Sadly, human nature hasn’t evolved enough for us to have outgrown all the things Thackeray was satirizing. So Vanity Fair gives us some brain food alongside the beautiful homes and gardens of the British rich.

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Elizabeth L'Abate
re: Vanity Fair "Nutrient dense" is the description I use to for any written or filmed material worthy of our time....Which fits with your extended metaphor....
Dec 23, 2018   |  Reply
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