Vanity Fair ITV review: Olivia Cooke dazzles in a pitch-perfect dramatisation

Thackeray's classic story of avarice and ambition gets a stunning treatment from the makers of Poldark and Victoria

Vanity Fair Olivia Cooke

Every generation needs its own Becky Sharp – and pretty much every generation has.

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William Makepeace Thackeray’s charismatic anti-heroine from his novel Vanity Fair has appeared in a BBC adaptation pretty much every decade since the Second World War.

Along with the Beeb’s Beckys – Joyce Redman, Susan Hampshire, Eve Matheson, Natasha Little – Reese Witherspoon played her on film on 2004.

But you can never have too much of a good thing, and the great news is that in Olivia Cooke on ITV, viewers have found another corker.

The Oldham actress, perhaps little known in her own country (she was a star of A+E’s Bates Motel), is a dazzlingly charismatic Becky. Crucially, Cooke allows us to respond to her character with as much sympathy as contempt in this smart and visually delightful series.

A dreamy version of Bob Dylan/Jimi Hendrix’s All Along the Watchtower started proceedings, as we were introduced to the main characters in a slow-motion montage on a merry-go-round (more of which later).

Putting modern music into period adaptations doesn’t always work, but this was a rather effective way to let us know that this is a story for any age. Also, that song’s refrain – “There must be some kind of way outta here” – is pretty much Becky’s motto.  She’s the low-born French mistress who falls on hard times when she has to leave the Pinkerton school for Young Ladies, and finds solace with her friend Amelia Sedley (Claudia Jessie).

In the early stages Becky is cunning enough to guilt trip Amelia with a sob story of her life. Cooke manages to convey intense charm while never losing sight of the cunning and calculation she deploys to get her way – the first of many examples as those familiar with the novel will know.

There’s the occasional sly look to camera, but this is never over-done. There’s rarely a time when we don’t actually sympathise with her, knowing full well the fate of young unmarried woman with neither the money nor the prospects to get on.

When Amelia blithely says that love is the only thing that matters in life, it would be an odd viewer who doesn’t identify with Becky’s response: “It depends on how much you start out with.”

The teasing of sympathies also extended to the Sedley’s butler Sam (Richie Campbell), who is black (as he is in the book – in the Victorian original he is called “Black Sambo”). His wincing when Sedley Sr (Simon Russell-Beale) makes a series of grotesquely racist remarks about people with “mahogany” faces is plain. But even Sam is capable of pulling rank, particularly when he snipes at Becky just before she leaves the Sedley household.

“The rich man at his castle, the poor man at his gate,” Sam sneers, only for Becky to reply: “Fortunately I’m not a man.”

Attagirl.

Vanity Fair is a sweeping panorama of a novel, told in the book’s framing by a third person narrator.

Here that narrator is played by Michael Palin, casting an eye over a merry-go-round which opens the action, full of bright noise and colour – and a few lightbulbs, which of course had not been invented by the time of the Napoleonic Wars when this is set, but we’ll let that pass.

Olivia Cooke as Becky Sharp and Johnny Flynn as William Dobbin in the first episode of Vanity Fair – complete with historically dubious electric light bulbs (ITV)
Olivia Cooke as Becky Sharp and Johnny Flynn as William Dobbin in the first episode of Vanity Fair – complete with historically questionable electric lightbulbs (ITV)

The foray to the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens introduces the main characters, washing the screen with colour and noise as Becky makes her forlorn stab at “lardy loafer” (his father’s words) Jos Sedley and acquires an enemy in the form of George Osborne.

That Becky makes a play for the idiotic Jos is a measure of her desperation, even if Osborne saw right through her. As Jos, David Fynn was great fun, delivering his catchphrase cry of “Ooh Tiffin” whenever it looked like he would be fed with particular gusto.

The evening at Vauxhall ended with poor Jos too blotto to propose, and Becky is ultimately despatched to remote cold stately home Queen’s Crawley. There she encounters the less than tender embrace of lecherous old aristocratic skinflint Pitt Crawley, played rather fabulously by Martin Clunes.

Hope is at hand though. She’s about to meet the dashing Rawdon Crawley (Tom Bateman), another beau she will have her eyes on. Good luck Becky. Your fortunes will blow in the wind but there’s one thing we can be sure of: Olivia Cooke will not let you down.

Michael Palin in Vanity Fair

Vanity Fair continues on Sunday nights on ITV

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This article was originally published on 2 September 2018