This ITV adaptation of William Makepeace Thackeray’s 1848 novel stars Olivia Cooke as Becky Sharp, an orphan of low parentage who, after leaving a girls’ boarding school with her best friend, the well off Amelia Sedley (Claudia Jessie), soon makes it her mission to rise up to a much higher societal standing, willing to do whatever it takes – to marry whoever will carry her to the top, and to use all the tools in her arsenal, including her cleverness and powers of seduction. Along the way, she enters into a relationship with the dashing Captain Rawdon Crawley (Tom Bateman) and she continues to rise up in society but in a world where everyone is “striving for something that is not worth having”, can it all last?
Dominating the entire series is the character of Becky Sharp, played wonderfully by Olivia Cooke – who herself is a huge star on the rise. Becky is such an intriguing and colourful character and it’s always entertaining to watch her use all of her tricks in order to get what she wants, whether that involves turning on the waterworks or making eyes at the richest man in the room. It’s clear that Becky is adept at playing people and is unapologetically manipulative and sly but even with all this, she’s still flawed and vulnerable, not having been given a chance in life due to her low birth, and through the series, we always will her to succeed and to make something happen for herself and despite her treatment of some of the other characters, she’s never unlikable and we’re able to have fun in watching her “play the game”. The mighty Olivia Cooke brings her to life brilliantly, shining brightly above all others and with her mischievous smile and her occasional Frank Underwood inspired glances to camera, she brings the spirited character to life and is overall a real treat to watch.
Supporting her, the show has a very nice ensemble cast and in particular, Tom Bateman is strong and charismatic as Rawdon Crawley, a memorable romantic lead opposite our (anti) heroine, Claudia Jessie is a perfect fit for the sweet and kind-hearted Amelia, Robert Pugh is a powerful presence as her stern and condescending father-in-law, Anthony Head is slimy and devilish, though perhaps a bit hammy, as the controlling Lord Steyne, and, gleefully stealing the spotlight in many of his scenes, Martin Clunes is an absolute delight as the irascible Sir Pitt Crawley – dishing out a lot of warm, affectionate humour with aplomb and immense likeability.
I’ve never read the original novel, had no idea what is was about and had never heard of any of the major characters going in, but this would appear to be an impressive adaptation and it’s an ideal length at seven episodes; no instalment feels like filler and something happens each time to advance the plot along. Gwyneth Hughes’ scripts are just right and her writing allows all the important themes to shine through, such as the lengths that people will go to to further their place in society, acting disingenuously in the process, and it all includes that well worn issue of marrying for love or money. The plotting does hit a bit of a snag towards the end though because the narrative skips forward quite a bit without any forewarning and because of this, the story can get a little confused at the later stages in the series, especially when Becky suddenly has a baby for some reason.
There’s a good mix of warm comedy involved as well as plenty of melodrama, sweeping emotional scenes and exciting drama – nothing that will be remembered as the most memorable TV moments of the year but intriguing enough to keep us invested in the show. The emotional moments hit quite hard because the characters have earned our respect and overall, Vanity Fair proves itself to be a very impressive drama series. The production design, including the locations and all the fashion, is all that you’d expect from a literary adaptation such as this, there’s plenty of colour, and the music is often sweeping and grandiose but the series also occasionally uses tracks by Madonna, Paloma Faith and Kate Bush appropriately.