Review: Vanity Fair

After quite a long period of advertising and hype, Gwyneth Hughes’ seven-episode adaptation of W.M. Thackeray’s 1848 novel Vanity Fair finally hit UK screens this September, and with its star-studded cast, lavish period costumes, and various twists of fate, it certainly lived up to expectations.

The starring role of social-climber Becky Sharpe is spectacularly portrayed by Olivia Cooke (of recent Bates Motel and Ready Player One fame), whose performance is always highly watchable and engaging. Cooke also manages to make Becky a likeable character, despite her scheming and often selfish nature, which is quite the achievement. She stars alongside several big names such as Martin Clunes (Doc Martin), Anthony Head (BBC’s Merlin), and multi-award winner Frances de la Tour (Vicious, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire), yet always manages to turn the audience’s attention back to her, whether through some witty comment or a sneaky look to the camera. Like Becky herself, the majority of the characters in the show are deeply flawed, making it uncertain as to everyone’s true intentions. This adds an element of suspense which is not always seen in period dramas, and so sets apart Vanity Fair from many of its competitors and predecessors.

The adaptation also makes use of modern elements entwined with the historical, particularly in reference to the choices of music. The show’s theme song is a cover of Bob Dylan’s All Along the Watchtower, performed by musical duo Afterhere, which is played over shots of the cast on a traditional carousel, whilst W.M. Thackeray himself (Michael Palin) gives a brief recap of last week’s episode. It is unusual for a novel adaptation to feature the author themselves as a character, let alone one who directly addresses the audience, but Vanity Fair manages to pull this off to great effect. The end credits of each episode also feature modern music, such as Madonna’s Material Girl, which comes as a bit of a surprise, particularly in the first episode, but the songs have clearly been specifically chosen to fit with the plot, so they soon begin to make sense.

Overall’ ITVs Vanity Fair is a highly enjoyable watch; it has just the right amount of humour and seriousness, an intriguing plot and characters, and new elements to surprise even those who are familiar with the original novel. The costumes, soundtrack, acting, and cinematography are all stunning, and it is easy for the viewer to get wrapped up in the on-screen action. There are a few unexpected time-skips towards the end of the series that are a little confusing, but the plot soon gets back on track, and the ending, though somewhat satisfying, also hints that a second series may be on the way next year – here’s hoping!