Ah! Vanitas Vanitatum! Which of us is happy in this world? Which of us has his desire? Or, having it, is satisfied? Come, children, let us shut up the box and the puppets, for our play is played out. ?William Makepeace Thackeray, Vanity Fair
After being so infuriated by the experience of pre-reading Wilkie Collins’ excellent The Woman in White only to be disappointed by that novel’s nonsensical small-screen adaptation earlier this year, I approached the new ITV/Amazon adaptation of William Makepeace Thackeray’s 1847-48 serial novel, Vanity Fair, from the exact opposite angle: I did not read it, or about it, or about any of the many adaptations of it that came before Gwyneth Hughes’, until after I finished all seven episodes. Instead, I let myself invest fully and only in Hughes’ dreamily sardonic vision of Thackeray’s Napoleonic puppet show, and Olivia Cooke’s charming villainy as amoral social climber Becky Sharp at that puppet show’s center.
I say this with all the sincerity in the world: Becky Sharp is terrible—and thank God for it.
Brought to life by Cooke (Bates Motel), Becky Sharp is the dark changeling version of all the intrepid pro-woman, anti-elite heroines that television critics in 2018 adore. Born to a lowly artist and French opera girl and orphaned at a young age, Becky is introduced to the audience as a clever young woman justifiably incensed at the lot fate has handed her, and is set up as the protagonist for viewers to root for as she attempts to bootstrap her way into a position of greater security on her era’s still-limited social ladder. “You forget your station, Miss Sharp!” exclaims Miss Pinkerton (Suranne Jones) when Becky, then a French mistress, descends upon her office in the first episode to demand a pay raise. “I do! Yes! Daily and most sincerely!” Becky bites back, in what viewers will quickly come to recognize as her signature rapid-fire purr.
As clearly coded as Miss Pinkerton and Becky are in this opening scene as villain and heroine—coding that follows them physically into the next scene, in which Miss Pinkerton attempts to shame Becky in front of the entire school, and Becky bites back in fluent French that the headmistress doesn’t understand—any sense that Becky’s intentions might be pure are cut down by the crocodile tear-filled con she cooks up in a hot second the moment the pure-hearted Amelia Sedley (Claudia Jessie) takes it upon herself to offer up her family as a momentary place of refuge. From the moment a victorious Becky steps into Amelia’s carriage, canary feathers all but dangling from her cheshire cat smirk, the viewer knows that nothing good is going to come to anyone who gets in the way of what Miss Sharp wants. And for the next seven episodes, that grim fact is proven, time and again.
I say grim, but in Hughes’ hands, I found Becky Sharp’s story exceedingly entertaining—especially, I was shocked to discover, in every moment she finds herself at war with her own child. (“I HATE you!” her son screams at one point, when she angrily snatches a feathered headpiece from him. “The feeling is quite mutual, I assure you,” she spits back. How deliciously horrible.) From what reading I did after watching the series, it’s clear that Thackeray never intended for the grimness of Becky’s situation to be taken very seriously—she’s terrible, yes, but also a complete fabrication; whatever investment readers (or viewers) put into the consequences of her actions, we are never meant to take it for anything other than pure artifice. Hughes recognizes this, and spins out these seven chapters of Becky’s story with her tongue planted firmly in cheek. As far as comparisons go, just imagine what you might get if you crossed Kate Beckinsale’s Love & Friendship with Heath Ledger’s A Knight’s Tale: Period drama staging so lavish is verges on clownish and a protagonist who seems to exist just slightly out of the time she’s stuck in, with a few truly resonant emotional threads buried amidst what is otherwise seven full hours of tightly performed, very funny satire, all wrapped up with a big, irreverent bow.
That said, even the most irreverent details in Love & Friendship and A Knight’s Tale are mild compared to the extremes Hughes cooks up for her Vanity Fair, which range from disorientingly gimmicky deep zooms on characters reacting to bad news, to shots rotating 360° whenever the story shifts gears, to musical intros and outros from 20th and 21st-century rockers (Kate Bush is featured prominently), to melodramatic narratorial monologues skewering Becky and everyone around her wedged in at the top of each episode. This latter element is delivered with zest by Monty Python’s Michael Palin, dressed up as an old-fashioned carnival barker version of William Makepeace Thackeray and lit from behind by the glow of a whirling carousel upon which Becky, Amelia, Rawdon (Tom Bateman), Dobbin (Johnny Flynn), Jos (David Fynn), and George (Charlie Rowe) perch astride various gilded steeds, grinning like mad people as Becky whoops in joy to the night sky above. I mean, sure! Why not!
And just in case those many attention-snagging details are not enough to keep the unreality of Becky’s world front-of-mind, Hughes additionally has Cooke flick her gaze, straight-up Office-style, directly into the camera at least once per episode, letting her go so far as to add an “ugh, the tedium” eyeroll when being called upon to offer platonic comfort to a female “friend” here, or a tiny “well, I had to try” shrug when getting caught out in the middle of one of her increasingly obvious emotional cons there. The very first shot of her in the first episode, “Miss Sharp in the Presence of the Enemy,” in fact, is a blurry Becky striding towards the camera down Miss Pinkerton’s school hallway, making direct eye contact with the camera the second she comes into focus, in the moment before she invades the headmistress’ office to finagle her way into a better situation. Whether or not this gimmick is to your taste, it serves a precise narrative purpose beyond maintaining the audience’s recognition of the story’s artifice—it also makes the audience complicit with Becky’s conniving, in that every time she locks eyes with us, she demonstrates that she can only succeed so long as we keep watching, and thus, all the miseries that befall those around her, friend and foe alike, are as much on our head as on hers.
In the end, what’s so galling about the story at the heart of Vanity Fair, of course, is how right Becky is about the rot at the heart of her society, even as she seizes every opportunity to capitalize on that rot for as long as she can. This is why we as viewers can’t look away, even when we are reminded of our own complicity—by Becky’s loaded glances, by the narrator’s warning speeches, by the heartbreaking blows taken time and again by the few decent souls unlucky or unwise enough to get caught in Becky’s web (oh, Rawdon, my heart!), by the very fact that by the end of the series not every villain gets a comeuppance, and not nearly enough lessons are learned. Throughout it all, Becky is wrong, obviously, but also… she’s not wrong, and you don’t need me to tell you how relevant that kind of narrative dissonance is right now, in 2018. We’re all wrong these days, even when we’re not. We’re all too complicit, and too selfish, and too proud.
And there I am, trying to read sense into Vanity Fair when no sense is meant to be made, in spite of every lesson William Makepeace Thackeray, Olivia Cooke and Gwyneth Hughes tried to teach me, in spite of the argument I made myself at the top of this review. Which, I guess, well done, Hughes and team! You got me. What an empty, beautiful victory.
Vanity Fair premieres Friday, Dec. 21 on Amazon Prime.
Alexis Gunderson is a TV critic whose writing has appeared on Forever Young Adult, Screener, and Birth.Movies.Death. She’ll go ten rounds fighting for teens and intelligently executed genre fare to be taken seriously by pop culture. She can be found @AlexisKG.