In America, we remake ’80s sitcoms. In England, the TV industry adapts classic Victorian novels again and again. It’s a respectable vice; the only pitfall is when creators feel the need to try something “new” and “different” with the material — which is already considered classic for a reason, thank you very much. Which brings us to the U.K.’s latest take on Vanity Fair (premiering Dec. 21 on Amazon Prime Video), a faithful, suitably grand retelling of William Makepeace Thackeray’s tale of social-climbing that is marred by some unnecessary “modern” flourishes.
Bates Motel and Ready Player One’s Olivia Cooke stars as Becky Sharpe, a relentlessly ambitious daughter of an opera girl who manipulates her way into society through lies and unfeeling charm. After being engaged as a governess by the miserly Sir Pitt Crawley (Martin Clunes), Becky latches on to his wealthy sister Matilda (the formidable Frances de la Tour) and begins her slow climb out of financial obscurity. Though the story expands beyond Miss Sharpe — ample time is spent on the familial and romantic woes of Becky’s painfully earnest friend Amelia Sedley (Claudia Jessie) and the blandly heroic William Dobbin (Johnny Flynn), who loves Amelia from afar — our antiheroine is the most interesting character of the bunch, and the seven-episode series lags a bit whenever she isn’t on screen. Also disappointing: Michael Palin, playing W.M. Thackeray himself, pops up for a few seconds each episode to offer perfunctory introductions (“Tonight, Becky’s fortunes go up, and then down”), and quickly disappears.
Cooke does an admirable job making the cold-hearted, quick-witted Becky entertainingly unlikable; if only the production didn’t require her to break the fourth wall with periodic smirks to the camera, Jim Halpert-style. One suspects that this touch, and the anachronistic soundtrack (Bob Dylan, Madonna, and Kate Bush), are the production’s clumsy way of reminding us that the themes of Thackeray’s novel — heroism, ambition, greed — are still relevant today. In related news, Starz’s excellent adaptation of Howards End is now available to stream. C+