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'Vanity Fair' review: Mirthless, melodramatic version of Thackeray's classic

Olivia Cooke as Becky Sharp from Amazon

 Olivia Cooke as Becky Sharp from Amazon Prime Video's "Vanity Fair." Photo Credit: Amazon Prime Video/Robert Viglasky

MINISERIES "Vanity Fair"

WHEN | WHERE Starts streaming Friday on Amazon Prime Video

WHAT IT'S ABOUT Napoleon is about to escape Elba, setting England on edge. Meanwhile, in London, Becky Sharp (Olivia Cooke, "Bates Motel") seeks to escape her lowly station in life, and does. She leaves boarding school with her best friend, Amelia Sedley (Claudia Jessie), and briefly moves in with her family. Amelia's father, John (Simon Russell Beale) and her fiance, George (Charlie Rowe) are suspicious of Becky's intentions, although George's friend, William Dobbin (Johnny Flynn) is sympathetic. After unsuccessfully attempting to seduce Amelia's sad-sack brother, Jos (David Fynn), she's forced to become a governess for the wealthy and unscrupulous Sir Pitt Crawley (Martin Clunes). In time, she becomes married to the scion of the Crawley family, Rawdon (Tom Bateman), although when that marriage falters, she turns her gaze elsewhere, including to another wealthy suitor, Lord Steyne (Anthony Head).

 Introducing each episode, or "chapter," Michael Palin also stars as William Makepeace Thackeray — this seven-hour miniseries is adapted from his 1847-48 serialized novel, "Vanity Fair: A Novel Without A Hero."

MY SAY Surveying the colorful sprawl of a London that he was about to gleefully defame, Thackeray wrote in his novel's preface that "there is a great quantity of eating, drinking, making love and jilting, laughing and the contrary, smoking, cheating, fighting, dancing and fiddling; there are bullies pushing about, bucks ogling the women, knaves picking pockets, policemen on the look-out . . ."

 Sounds like fun! And it is, or was — that novel, anyway. One of the great comic burlesques of the language, "Vanity Fair" held everyone and everything in contempt, while crowding each page with enough satire and scorn to inspire admirers well into the next century and beyond. This seven-episode miniseries is evidently not among them.

 Directed by James Strong ("Broadchurch") and based on a script by Gwyneth Hughes ("Remember Me"), their "Vanity Fair" is at once faithful and faithless — duty bound to the plot, but stripped of the original energy and spirit. "Vanity Fair" is supposed to be high-blown mockery. This one is mostly just mirthless and melodramatic.

Hughes and Strong may have had little choice in the matter. What reads on the page may have become a confused jumble on-screen. Moreover, Thackeray believed the human race largely is comprised of "abominably foolish and selfish people," while reminding readers — in the title, no less — that they would encounter no heroes in the pages to follow.

 But evidently believing viewers want their heroes, this "Vanity Fair" will supply them. Becky's betrayed friend, good-hearted/simple-minded Amelia Sedley, is one and so is Becky — a conniving temptress in Thackeray's hands, but ultimately a well-meaning if somewhat unscrupulous gold-digger in Cooke's.

Obviously this "VF" wants to be something entirely different from the book and it is. It's not a satire, but a love story, and no more a condemnation of the moneyed class than "Downton Abbey" was. It also wants us to like Becky or at least sympathize with her — reasonable enough in 2018 given the borderline misogyny of Thackeray's portrait of the 1840s.

Taken on its own terms, this almost succeeds. There are some nice performances (both of those just mentioned) and the canvas is a beauty.  If you want a pleasant ride through the early 19th century English countryside, along with a few relevant social, historic and literary tangents, this should do fine. 

But absent venom and mockery, there's no edge and certainly no laughs. What's left is just another competent adaptation of a particularly famous book, and ultimately — regrettably — a forgettable one.

BOTTOM LINE No teeth, no energy, no fun, this "Vanity Fair" can occasionally feel like a homework assignment.

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