William Makepeace Thackeray’s classic satire of 19th-century society has been translated into a richly rewarding six-hour mini that comes as a breath of fresh air after the tepid fall TV season on U.S. networks. Offering an irresistable plotline, addictively watchable characters and a modern edge that may leave the Merchant Ivory crowd slightly baffled, drama should have fans forget about the prim and proper world of Jane Austen and George Eliot in no time.
When we first meet Becky Sharp (Natasha Little), the drama’s irrepressible heroine, she’s 19 and ready to leave a young ladies’ academy to accept a position as a governess. Like a Napoleonic Wars-era version of Scarlett O’Hara, Becky vows never to lose sight of her ambitions, no matter how many wealthy patrons she has to bewitch to secure a place for herself in London’s high society.
It’s one of the project’s many pleasures to see newcomer Little inhabit the role of this very flawed character. Her Becky is one English beauty who knows a thing or two about charming her way out of any ugly situation.
On the other side of the coin is her friend Amelia Sedley (Frances Grey) who is so good and open-hearted, the author makes her suffer even more than Becky. How she goes through life blinded by her undying love for the brutish army officer George Osborne (Tom Ward) makes one wish she had an ounce of her friend’s instinct.
The ups and downs of the two heroines’ lives brings them in contact with a human circus of supporting players, portrayed with much spark from regulars of the British stage. Vet character actress Miriam Margolyes especially is in fine comic form as Miss Crawley, a wealthy, sickly matron whose impending death makes her a ripe target for Becky’s schemes. Also effective is Philip Glenister, who portrays Dobbin, Amelia’s long-suffering admirer who spends most of the story’s duration stoically watching over the object of his affections.
Much credit for the success of the production has to be given to TV scribe Andrew Davies, who has condensed Thackeray’s work with ease and elan. The Emmy-winning writer, who has been behind many of the literary adaptations of the past decade — “Middlemarch,” “Moll Flanders,” “Pride and Prejudice” and “Emma” are a few of his credits — has the ability to convey a world about each character with a few telling lines of dialogue.
Helmer Marc Munden (“Touching Evil”), a former doc filmmaker, and cinematographer Oliver Curtis bring a decidely offbeat approach to the period piece. They’re not afraid of employing shadowy cinematography and extreme closeups (including many odd ones of farm animals and grotesque background characters) to emphasize the book’s gritty milieu. As a result, the tone of the piece owes more to Tony Richardson’s 1963 adaptation of “Tom Jones” than your usual garden-variety “Masterpiece Theatre” offering.
What’s remarkable is how much Thackeray’s tale resonates in this age of ambitious White House interns and wealthy Silicon Valley tycoons. A century and a half later, the author’s kaleidoscopic account of human foibles casts a heady spell. Production nabbed six Bafta TV award nominations. Tech credits, as expected from these BBC/A&E productions, are topnotch.