Movies, as they say, are hardly ever as good as the books they’re based on. Hollywood has a penchance for taking what an audience loves and changing it. Director Mira Nair’s feminist take on William Thackeray’s 1847 novel of the same name keeps the title and the basic plot but loses its main character to vast sweeping changes in her personality and circumstances. Thackeray’s Becky Sharp had no qualms about taking what she thought she deserved, but the Sharp that inhabits Nair’s movie is presented as a likable but flawed woman. Even as her actions destroy her relationships with those closest to her, she perseveres, but does the movie realize she’s the problem?
Reese Witherspoon plays the role of the plucky Sharp, a woman working her way up the rungs of England’s class-based society. Life for Sharp is a roller coaster of ups and downs as she charms her way into a better life that falls apart just as things get good. Cociety’s ceiling for women, and especially for those born outside of wealthy families, is low, but Sharp plays the game wiling and guiling her way until she finally finds love in the arms of Captain Rawdon Crawley who’s due to inherit a substantial amount of money. Things take a turn for the worse as Napoleon attacks, Crawley goes into debt, and Sharp finds herself connected to the powerful but perverted Marquess of Steyne (Gabriel Byrne).
Thackeray’s story is hijacked by a desire to make Sharp more likeable. She’s not presented as a villain — she’s a woman who knows what she wants, and it seems like her selfishness is a credit to her character even though it leads to destruction. Thackeray’s story was more allegory, a satire on a corrupt society where people could buy their way into nobility. The literary Sharp psychotically manipulated and worked her way into the good graces of her hosts. Nair’s “heroine” — Thackeray’s novel carried a second title “A novel without a hero” — is a creature of wants and desires, and the movie seems to ask, Well, what’s wrong with that? Less bark and less bite, the movie version of Sharp wants a bigger piece of the piece, and when she hides a stack of cash in her drawer for herself while her gambling husband works his debts off, things go south, again. She’s left devastated only to be found later living abroad, a shell of what she used to be. Opportunity strikes again and Sharp gets her happy ending, making this reviewer think that the point of this story is that no one should suffer much or long for their crimes lest they actually learn something.