Vanity Fair (2018) 

Reviewer: Charity Bishop

"This is Vanity Fair, where everyone is striving for something not worth having..."

Those cheeky but profound words appear at the introduction to each episode of this marvelous miniseries, which adapts Makepeace Thackery's novel for the small screen. It sparkles with wit and humor, it engages the emotions with detestable characters, and it shows the depths of the selfish human spirit. In short, it's a pure joy to watch.

Miss Becky Sharp (Olivia Cooke) has quite made her mind up: she will not be a governess. When her prim schoolmistress kicks her out, she employs a few tears to get the sympathy of one of her schoolmates, Amelia (Claudie Jessie). They travel to Amelia's home, where desperate to avoid a fate as a governess, Becky sets her sights on Amelia's awkward older brother, Jos (David Flynn). His parents frown on the courtship, but there's not much they can do about it -- and then Becky finds her hopes dashed when after a public humiliation, Jos flits away in the middle of the night. Not to be undone by circumstances, Becky travels to a dismal house in disrepair to undertake her role as a governess. But, she soon finds out Sir Pitt (Martin Clunes) needs a secretary. So, she makes herself useful... and then when his rich aunt comes along, accompanied by the dashingly handsome Rawdon (Tom Bateman), Becky sees another chance to strive even higher.

But sooner or later, as Becky finds out, you cannot scheme you way to the top and expect to stay there. And while she plays out her game of ambition, Amelia nurses her love for a feckless youth -- and ignores the stalwart William Dobbin (Johnny Flynn) who pines for her in secret from the shadows. In all honesty, I have never read Vanity Fair but this adaptation makes me want to, it's such a cheeky series. And it allows Becky's mercenary nature to shine through in a way that the Reese Witherspoon version did not. Becky is a vile opportunist but a likable one -- and she sucks the viewers into her schemes with many sly glances and winks at the camera. In a brilliant piece of adaptation, Becky wins us over relatively early on... but as Rawdon comes to see the truth of her deceptions, so do we. Little by little we find less to like about her. And by the end, we realize she's selfish. Amelia's selfish. And Dobbin is a fine fellow but should have found someone worthier of him. And yet, I found myself rooting for him to have Amelia -- if only because he loves her, even if she "isn't worth having."

The introduction of modern, lyrically-appropriate music at the conclusion of each episode is a nice touch. It's saucy and fun. The costumes are splendid. The ladies are all wearing their hair up! It's a lush adaptation, with a beautiful cast of mainly unknowns -- but by far, the series belongs to Cooke, who unapologetically embraces everything about Becky -- making her loathsome and admirable all at once. She can adapt to any situation and manipulate anyone, and yet there are some truly funny, dark moments that reveal the depths of her selfish ambition -- such as when she tramps through a house, collects a gown off a dead man's shelf, and then carries it out into the garden to pick the moths off it. She may as well have something from serving the old man, right?

The funny thing about this is, even though I hated about half the characters and found them intolerable, I had such a good time watching them that I'm sure I'll revisit the series many times over... and that's the mark of a well-done adaptation. It was clean despite its themes, humorous, saucy, and a little bit mean -- just like its heroine.

       
Sexual Content:
It's implied a woman becomes a man's mistress, but we never see anything; married couples wake up together. Men make a few mildly lewd remarks to Becky.
 
Language:
Scattered mild profanities (damn, hell) and insults (bastard, whore, harlot).
 
Violence:
War scenes include men and horses being shot or blown up; some blood. A man punches another man so hard, he falls and hits his head on a piano; the man walks out with blood on his face.

 
Other:
Becky asks her fortune from a street-side fortune teller.