Mira's early feminist

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By The Telegraph Online
  • Published 6.09.04
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Reese Witherspoon and Mira Nair at a photocall in Venice on Sunday. (AFP)

Venice, Sept. 5 (Reuters): A 19th century English classic is the basis for Indian director Mira Nair’s Vanity Fair but she and her star Reese Witherspoon have transformed the novel’s scheming heroine into a feminist ahead of her time.

The colourful film, spiced with a belly dance led by Witherspoon, draws a sympathetic portrait of its ambitious lead character.

“Becky Sharp was an early feminist,” said Witherspoon, her blonde hair dyed brown, after the movie’s showing in the main competition at the Venice Film Festival.

“When (William) Thackeray wrote this novel in the 1840s it was a time when women had very little opportunity to further themselves.”

It’s an ambitious role for the 28-year-old actress best known as the bubbly heroine of the blockbuster comedy Legally Blonde, though she has also done independent movies including Election, in which she plays a cut-throat high school student.

Witherspoon was pregnant during the film, which she said helped her play Sharp’s character because she herself felt “much more emotionally vulnerable.”

She acts alongside an accomplished, mostly British cast, which includes Gabriel Byrne as the devilish Marquis of Steyne, to whom Witherspoon’s Sharp sells her soul to achieve her dream of social prominence.

The movie version of Thackeray’s classic does not just have a female lead and director. Its three co-producers were also women, assuring that their take on the young governess turned social climber is a charitable one.

Nair is trying to repeat her Venice Film Festival success with Monsoon Wedding, which won the Golden Lion Award in 2001 and went on to become an international hit.

Vanity Fair was partly shot in her native India but remains essentially an English tale. It benefits from her often scathing outsider’s view of the social mores of the British empire near its height.