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Chasing the wind

(Amazon Studios/ITV)

Television

Chasing the wind

Amazon’s Vanity Fair shows the folly of striving after fleeting things

Perhaps the rumors are true that Amazon wants to develop a few cleaner series that don’t feature the sex, violence, or profanity common to streaming and cable dramas. Although Vanity Fair, the famous “Novel Without a Hero,” offers numerous opportunities to visually capitalize on the adulterous affairs and other unbecoming conduct William Makepeace Thackeray merely hinted at, Amazon’s gorgeous, wonderfully acted seven-part series (rated TV-14 with some minor profanity) wisely resists the bait. Instead, it allows the viewer to assume from context the natural results of playing with fire.

It’s long been speculated that Thackeray’s Becky Sharp (Olivia Cooke) inspired Margaret Mitchell’s quintessentially selfish heroine, Scarlett O’Hara. And certainly there’s plenty of Becky in Scarlett’s fiddle-de-dee refusal to consider the long-term consequences of her actions. The main difference, if you can believe it, is that Becky is more egotistical and less given to sentiment. She’s also more interesting for her unapologetic assessment of her own corrupt nature. Whether she’s trying to seduce her best friend Amelia’s foppish brother; running off with the reckless son of her employer; or making herself financially beholden to a notoriously mad, bad, and dangerous-to-know lord, Becky can’t resist chasing after the wind. Yet it’s hard to entirely condemn or even dislike her when she looks so much like us. 

Who can blame Becky for letting her ambition run away with her scruples, given that she started life as the penniless, orphaned daughter of an artist and opera girl, with only her formidable IQ and pretty face to rely on? Indeed, if the manipulative Miss Sharp were scratching and clawing her way up the social ladder of modern America, we’d be applauding her at awards shows and profiling her in magazines instead of denouncing her as an “artful little hussy.”

Bad as Becky is, though, look closely at Thackeray’s sweet, submissive Amelia (Claudia Jessie). It seems she may also have helped inspire Scarlett as well as Mitchell’s Melanie character.

As she’s written in the 19th-century bestseller, the insipid Amelia provokes our pity as she pines after childhood sweetheart George Osborne, a man whose character she never really understands. Even after his death, she carries on, year after year, so idolizing the memory of the vile cheat, she misses chances at happiness with a loyal, upright man who sacrifices half his life trying to win her love. 

Amelia’s stubborn refusal to look things in the eyes and call them by their right names makes her, as Thackeray intended, nearly as worthy of our scorn as scheming, cold-blooded Becky. Thus, his Vanity Fair truly does refuse to provide readers someone to admire. Amazon’s adaptation, however, updates poor Amelia to a more complex, commendable character who serves as a fascinating contrast to her friend.

This Amelia, while initially naïve, seems less deluded and more unwilling to strive after what she will eat and wear and live on in her old age. We see hints that she starts to realize what sort of man she’s married but refuses to indulge bitterness or apathy. Left with no means of support, she works to provide for herself and her son, but she never strives from worry or fear of the future. Becky, on the other hand, does nothing but strive, eventually piercing herself with many pangs. The result of their two approaches to life manages to convey Biblical truth without feeling moralizing or unrealistic.

This lesson is helped by a cast of supporting characters, each more transparently (and often hilariously) self-serving than the last. Fortunes rise and fall. Schemes succeed and fail. And the carousel of folly turns round and round. Though still a “very vain, wicked, foolish place, full of all sorts of humbugs and falsenesses and pretensions,” Amazon’s Vanity Fair is nonetheless a deliciously entertaining and edifying place.