If, like me, you love a beautifully constructed period piece, with lavish costumes, hair and makeup, and brilliantly adorned sets steeped in the accoutrements of history, then you will not be disappointed by watching this movie.  If, however, you also like a story in which the main character is a female to whom you can relate, and for whom you can also find compassion and empathy, you might, like me, be torn.

“I had thought her a mere social climber; I can see now she’s a mountaineer!” speaking of Sharp

The movie begins in 1802, and Reese Witherspoon plays Rebecca “Becky” Sharp, a 19th century social climber/gold digger and girl who is left at a girl’s home when both of her parents die.  Her father had been a painter and her mother a singer.  When Sharp comes of age, she leaves the home with her best friend, Amelia Sedley, and becomes a governess in the English countryside. She has no dowry or money, but what she does have is her intelligence, survival skills and drive to succeed.  Her strengths are “music, drawing and French,” as well as cunning mind, a gift for mimicry and a wicked smile.

Jonathon Rhys Meyers plays George Osborne (just two years after playing George Amberson), a social climber in his own right, a Captain in the British military who courts Amelia but looks down on Sharp as she is a governess – the class system is alive and well in 19th century England.   But Osborne is only a tradesman’s son and not of royal pedigree – isn’t always the ones toward the bottom that make it harder on the others beneath them?   Osborne talks his future brother-in-law, Amelia’s brother, out of courting Becky.  Ouch.

After this scene, Sharp lands another governess gig with the lecherous Sir Pitt Crawley, played by Bob Hoskins, to teach his two younger girls with his second wife.  Crawley has a wealthy spinster sister, Matilda, and a handsome son from a first wife, Rawdon (played by James Purefoy).  Sharp sets her sights on Rawdon while she gets close to Matilda.

Matilda loves her clever mind, and takes Sharp to London with Rawdon in tow.  Sharp leads Matilda to believe she’s an “impoverished aristocrat” from her mother’s side, when her mother was really a chorus girl!  However, she clearly does not understand the rules of aristocratic society:  when Sharp announces to Pitt and Matilda that she’s married Rawdon, she and her small fashion trunk initialed “RS” are kicked to the curb!  Seems it was fine to be close to the clever Ms. Sharp at an arms length, but the Crawley family, snobs that they are, have no desire for her to marry into them.  Now she’s called a “pauper’s daughter, a penniless governess.”

Matilda has a mysterious neighbor, the Marquess of Steyne (played by Gabriel Byrne) who plays a substantial role later in the plot.

Based on the novel of the same title by William Makepeace Thackeray, this movie explores the strange world where class dominates each social decision.  It’s a visually lovely movie which exposes the damage of snobbery and personal decisions based upon money and title rather than love and compassion.  I don’t think of Sharp as a complete and utter social climber without capacity for love of Rawdon.   It is Sharp who may actually ask the most important question in the movie, “Doesn’t anyone love me for myself alone?”  Always remember that Becky Sharp is a female character written by a man, and it shows!


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