Early nineteenth-century Britain may seem far from the high-tech, image-obsessed world of 2018, but ITV’s adaptation of William Makepeace Thackeray’s Vanity Fair is acutely aware of their similarities. Its protagonist, Becky Sharp is akin to an ‘influencer’ on social media. Modern audiences will find her self-promotional ambition familiar: she knows what she wants and is going to get it. The only difference is that this scheme is clad in Regency dress.
Screenwriter Gwyneth Hughes traces Thackeray’s plot relatively faithfully. Following the precocious Becky (Olivia Cooke) as she weaves her way through the serpentine British society during the Napoleonic Wars, Vanity Fair explores what lengths she will go to in her quest to make a way for herself in a hostile society. Becky is a young, low-born woman, the daughter of a French artist and opera dancer, who has nothing more than her charm and cunning to recommend her. As she clambers in a somewhat unladylike manner to the heights of society, it is sometimes at the price of others: her friend Amelia Sedley, for example, falls into poverty and ostracization. The juxtaposition of the two women in Vanity Fair undermines the refrain made by Thackery (Michael Palin) at the show’s opening, that social position ‘is not worth having’. In fact, we see that without it Amelia’s life is almost unbearable, while Becky knows that it is only those who are already in favour who can afford to proclaim society’s triviality.
Cooke exudes vivacity and zeal as Becky while ensuring viewers know this is all an act for the benefit of the snobbish sycophants that surround her. She too is one of us, at home watching the drama unfold. Her infrequent glances directly down the camera allow the viewer to be in on the secret, part of the game. Cooke handles the vlog-like approach with such proficiency that it endears the character. What could have come across as arrogance is transformed into cheek.
Vanity Fair has done away with any hang-ups about historical accuracy in favour of sparkling well-lit scenes, which illuminate the opulent beauty of the set and costuming. Its prolific use of overexposure and backlighting means you would be forgiven thinking that the Regency era was being streamed directly into the future via Instagram (filter included). Each frame is reminiscent of the ideal world constantly presented on our social media feeds.
The sometimes clumsy phrasing in the script only makes Becky more lovable. Her witty asides teeter on the edge of modern pop culture references. Sam, the Sedley’s black servant who is one of few to see through Becky’s facade, says to her ‘The rich man at his castle, the poor man at his gate’ as she stands at the literal and metaphorical gate. Her retort – ‘Fortunately, I’m not a man’ – was so steeped in the sass of modern pop culture she might as well have mounted a horse in the name of Rohan and rode to Gondor’s aid in the manner of Lord of the Ring’s Eowyn.
These moments of borderline triteness extend to the soundtrack. The opening credits are set to Afterhere’s cover of All Along the Watchtower, and you can almost hear the amused moans of the viewers when they listen to the lyrics ‘there must be some kind of way outta here’ as the characters literally go round in circles. Modern music is used exclusively for the opening and closing frames, and period-appropriate music in every other scenario. It results in a clever blurring of the modern and sensational Georgian period, which (like its allusions to social media) serves to closely align the past with today.
The show’s ending is inconclusive, but metaphorically overt. The viewer gets a sense of finality by Becky’s interaction with the narrator, but we know she will repeat her actions almost exactly and that she has learnt nothing even though we have seen this end in tragedy. The series avoids the sadness of the original text by not explicitly showing Becky’s troubles re-entering society, but implying her cyclical direction, back into her own cruelty and eventual ruin.
This only emphasises Thackeray’s satirical intentions. When Becky’s schemes turn cruel and thoughtless her disregard for anyone and anything but herself becomes apathetic . In Vanity Fair the veiled dangers behind lurid spectacle provide a tension that captivates viewers. Thackeray may have dubbed it as ‘A Novel without a Hero’, but Becky Sharp is hardly any less fascinating some 200 years after he penned her. Manipulation might not be the most virtuous quality, but when done with such charismatic allure, it is definitely worth watching.