Vanity Fair Review: ITV defy period drama exhaustion with star-studded show

By Leah Martindale, film and TV contributor

Despite a lifelong aversion to the ever-agonising genre of pearl-clutching period dramas, I settled down with my mother on Sunday evening to watch the third episode of ITV’s Vanity Fair - her television flavour of the month.

Based on the William Makepeace Thackeray novel of the same name, the show follows the lives of young women Becky Sharp (Olivia Cooke) and Emmy Sedley (Claudia Jessie) as they navigate the class, social, racial, and romantic obstacles of Napoleonic England.

The show screams everything I hate about the genre, but it managed to sucker me in from the opening credits onwards. After catching up on the first two episodes, proudly and wholeheartedly - though internally conflicted - I now call myself a fan.

The show would be nothing without Olivia Cooke’s stellar performance as the twinkling-eyed, charmingly manipulative, smiling assassin Becky. She follows in the footsteps of classic female anti-hero Scarlett O’Hara, the dark-haired vixen you love to hate from Gone With The Wind (1936). She is appropriately named considering her ‘Sharp’ attitude and wit to match, and, despite all your better judgement, you cannot help but wish the best for her, even when it comes at the expense of those more innocent, such as the beloved Mrs Raggles (Maggie Daniels).

Birmingham native Claudia Jessie plays Amelia ‘Emmy’ Sedley with a tenderness and grace befitting a far older and more seasoned actress. A certain nonsensical pride takes over when watching an actress from my home city succeed in such a measured and, at times, beautifully tragic role. If Becky is Scarlett O’Hara, Emmy is the darling, naïve, and truly loving Melanie.

The show features a host of recognisable talents ranging from Simon Russell Beale, Martin Clunes, Suranne Jones, and Outnumbered’s Claire Skinner. Frances de la Tour delivers a particularly noteworthy performance as the aged Miss Matilda Crawley. Moneyed, magisterial, and occasionally mean-spirited, she combines Miss Havisham and Lady Adelaide Stitch and, in the most recent episode, turns on our protagonist who previously sat in very good favour.

'I truly struggle to find fault in this TV masterpiece'

National treasure Michael Palin plays Thackeray himself, opening each episode by narrating a surreal scene featuring the primary cast on a carousel, serving both as a reminder of the film’s literary origins and a Brechtian reiterance of the falsity of it all; that in the end it truly is a Pilgrim’s Progress (1678) vanity fair, a fun-fair performance celebrating the vanity and sinfulness of man. Honestly, what could be better?

I truly struggle to find fault in this TV masterpiece. You wouldn’t blink were Keira Knightley or Colin Firth to amble, fumbling their words charmingly, onscreen. The music used in the title sequence is a mournful and entrancing cover of All Along the Watchtower by Afterhere, and sets the tone for an intricate and sincerely human production, as well as modernising the potentially dusty story. The end credits of the episodes include songs by Madonna and Paloma Faith, and composer Isobel Waller-Bridge, older sister of Phoebe, combines the contemporary songs with classical instruments to keep the show light and up-to-date without being jarring or distracting from the setting.

One of the more surprising and enamouring elements of the show is its unabashed depiction of the social flaws of the time. It would be a lazy disservice to those oppressed to pretend their disrespect and subjugation hadn’t happened. When Sam (Richie Campbell), a young black man, helps Becky to move homes, the show does not shy away from his assigned role in contemporary society. The Sedleys’ fall from upper-class grace that accompanies their bankruptcy is both overt and subtle in how it highlights the divisions of race and class.

One slightly unrealistic aspect in the third episode is the father of Emmy’s beloved trying to engage his son with a wealthy, black, Bajan woman instead. However, it is somewhat telling of the character that his greed is so unrelenting as to be colour-blind (or as near to as Napoleonic society came).

'I would watch it purely for the sheer visual spectacle'

Even if the show was not so faultlessly cast, soundtracked, and directed, I would watch it purely for the sheer visual spectacle. The tapestry of 1800’s England is seen so vividly that you can practically smell the bedpans, and the colour, light, and costumes combine to paint an idyllic Britain that never truly existed except in the imagination of romantics and writers alike.

The characters demonstrate the full range of human complexity and flaws, and Thackeray’s work demonstrates a lesson in fiction as old as time: a character who is wholly good is rarely exciting, but a character who is truly exciting is always good. The stunning and captivating Vanity Fair is available to watch on the ITV Hub, live on television, and in my dreams for the rest of the week.

Featured image: IMDB