Watching Becky Sharp maneuver her way through society's ranks in England in the early decades of the 19th century, a disapproving matron sniffs, "I had thought her a mere social climber; I see now that she's a mountaineer."
It's a perceptive line, but it gives this movie's Becky (Witherspoon) more credit than she deserves. The Becky of William Makepeace Thackeray's classic 1848 social satire, upon which this visually sumptuous if less than spellbinding film is based, was a conniving, calculating vixen, one of literature's most morally challenged heroines. In this version by director Mira Nair (Monsoon Wedding), a kinder and gentler Becky prevails. Trying to break through the upper crust of England's social strata, she does indeed occasionally act in ways that won't win her a Girl Scout badge for good conduct, but she's more likely to stamp her foot in pique than on the toes of others. The script does her a disservice by turning her into Becky Not So Sharp.
Despite her watered-down character, Witherspoon—aside from an incongruous Bollywood-esque dance sequence in which she has to make like an exotic Sally Rand—performs with intelligence and verve, though one never has a sense of her character aging. Playing her dashing but luckless husband, Purefoy displays industrial strength sex appeal and strong acting chops. (PG-13)