Vanity Fair review – this adaptation fizzes with all the energy of its social-climbing heroine

Yes, it’s yet another version of Thackeray’s novel, and it has its sights set on a modern audience, but Olivia Cooke is an ideal Becky Sharp – and the sumptuous sets are worth tuning in for all on their own

‘So that was school and this is the world,” says Becky Sharp, on her way to London with the “too good to be true” Amelia Sedley, who has taken pity on Sharp and invited her to stay for the week. After that, Miss Sharp will take up her new job as a governess in “darkest Hampshire” – a terrible fate. “I cannot bear to be a governess,” she says, dramatically. “I was not put on this Earth to be a poor and friendless spinster.” She has a few days to try to get out of it.

“How far can she get in a week?” says Amelia’s mother (Claire Skinner), peering over her glasses at her husband (Simon Russell Beale). But this is Becky Sharp we’re talking about, so don’t underestimate her. Miss Pinkerton (a wonderfully austere Suranne Jones), headmistress of her Academy for Young Ladies, where the orphaned Becky grew up, did. “You see how a Christian may seek to do good, girls?” she says to the room of graduating ladies in marshmallow-coloured empire-line dresses about the ungrateful Sharp. “Only to find she has nursed a viper in her bosom.”

Does the world need another adaptation of Vanity Fair? On the strength of this start to ITV’s new series, the answer would have to be yes. It feels as energetic and sparkly as a social climber’s zeal. Michael Palin plays the author William Makepeace Thackeray, introducing his story about “a world where everyone is striving for what is not worth having”, while the opening track playing behind him is a version of All Along the Watchtower. “There must be some kind of way out of here” might serve as Becky’s words to live by if she didn’t have a pretty good ideal already: “I want to make sure tomorrow is better than today,” the lowly daughter of an artist and an opera girl says to Amelia in their coach as they travel through London.

In this first episode, this will mostly be achieved by trying to seduce Amelia’s brother, the ghastly Jos, who has returned from India, where he is a rich civil servant (his title: Collector of Boggley Wollah). This “lardy loafer” is brilliantly odious – vain and full of tall tales of his heroics. Despite being terrified of young ladies, as his sister tells it, he has rather fallen for Miss Sharp. “She’s a nice, gay, merry young creature,” he says, waddling along, all pompous and porcine, in peach silk trousers. His attempts to propose are routinely thwarted, twice by the arrival of tiffin (“Ooh, tiffin!”) and, most amusingly, by his terrible behaviour at a night out at the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens, where he gets drunk on a bowl of rack punch. “Bloody fool,” says the saintly Captain Dobbin – all early-years Princess Di blond bashfulness – escorting a nauseous Jos back to his lodgings.

Hungover and remorseful, Jos doesn’t come round the next day to propose, which means time has run out for Becky, who has to leave for her new job. “Oh, that was a long week,” says Mrs Sedley, pleased to see the back of her. At the gloomy Hampshire mansion, Becky is unimpressed by her new employer, the coarse – and, worse, tight-fisted – Sir Pitt Crawley (Martin Clunes). But things are looking up – a handsome young soldier has just arrived on horseback and Becky already has his attention.

This seven-part series has been made with Amazon money, and it looks and feels wildly expensive – CGI London, including the great hedonistic spectacle of the Vauxhall party, is a treat, and it’s almost worth tuning in for the set designers’ selection of sumptuous wallpaper alone. The cast is fantastic, especially Olivia Cooke, who makes an ideal Becky Sharp. Her knowing looks to camera are spare enough to be conspiratorial without being annoying.

Gwyneth Hughes’s adaptation is close to the novel, but has its sights set on a modern audience. The Sedleys’ servant, Sam, who is black, has a reasonably fleshed-out character, at least by (admittedly low) costume drama standards; he is visibly appalled by the racist Mr Sedley – Becky may be low-born, but at least, he says, she is a “white face … Better than sending him back to India into the arms of some dusky maharani, better than a dozen mahogany grandchildren”. And it may just be me, but Amelia’s fiance, George Osborne, seems to have far more in common with his modern namesake – haughty, snobbish – than I remember from the book. As for Becky, if you’re part of the generation growing up with endless self-promotion and #livingmybestlife tags on social media, her quest for influence and riches will make so much sense as to be unremarkable. Whatever she’s after may not be worth having, but it is worth watching.

Contributor

Emine Saner

The GuardianTramp

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