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Witherspoon Brings 19th Century Novel to Life in <i>Vanity Fair</i> - 2004-09-22

American actress Reese Witherspoon stars and Indian-born Mira Nair is director of the new film version of a 19th century English literary classic - Vanity Fair.

In this latest film of the celebrated novel by William Makepeace Thackeray, Reese Witherspoon plays Becky Sharp, who maneuvers and manipulates her way from the back streets of London to the upper crust of English society in the early 1800s.

Romola Garai co-stars as Becky's dear friend Amelia Sedley. Witherspoon says being the lone American amid a cast of English actors helped her understand Becky's struggle.

"I think definitely being an outsider and being the only American helped. Also, with a piece of literature like this that's so revered and steeped in history and people know it and know the characters, it was nice to being able to come to it with a fresh perspective," she says. "While maintaining the respect that the material deserves, in a way it gives you the opportunity to feel more free within the character; and I think that's how Thackeray would want it. I think people put their ideas out there and they want them to be interpreted and brought to a modern audience from perspectives that everyone understands. I think everybody kind of understands being the person on the outside.

The thing I love about this character is she is not the good girl and she is not the bad girl ... and nobody is in life," adds Witherspoon. "I love that none of these characters are. Even the guy you think is the biggest jerk in the whole movie has another dimension: some other part of his personality that makes you think 'I can't judge him to be one thing. Nobody is just one thing.' I think that's pretty relatable because we are just human beings. I like that about the movie."

James Purefoy plays dashing Captain Rawdon Crawley, the nobleman who marries Becky over his family's objections.

"I felt a great affinity for him as a man, I guess because I knew where he was coming from and the class that he was in," he says. "My family arrived in England in 1066 and they've been living in the same house in Buckinghamshire ever since, so I understand these people: this idea of landed gentry and who these people are. Something else I understood [was] I have a very close relationship with my little boy and he had a close relationship with his boy, which was very unusual for that period. I don't think people hung out with their kids nearly as much. I just found a great deal to empathize with in the character.

"Vanity Fair is very precious to me because I've loved this book since I was 16 years old," explains Director Mira Nair. "It's the kind of book I re-read every couple of years because there's always something new that it gives me each time."

She points out that the Regency period, during which the story is set, was a time when the British Empire exerted its colonial control over her native India; but also the culture of South Asia influenced the British homeland.

"The foundation of Vanity Fair for me was the relation between the Empire and the Colonies," she says. "You could look at this 900-page banquet of a novel and find many ways to adapt it, but that relationship between the Colony and the Empire was something that was of great political and aesthetic context for me to fully explore in our Vanity Fair."

The movie is adapted from the Thackeray novel by Oscar-winner Julian Fellowes. The cast includes English actors Bob Hoskins, Rhys Ifans, Jim Broadbent and Eileen Atkins.