It is hard to empathize with someone who selfishly connives and manipulates to accomplish her personal desires. Consequently, watching the antics of the central figure in this very lengthy film adaptation of William Makepeace Thackeray's even lengthier novel, feels like an endurance test.
As crafty and cunning as her last name implies, Miss Becky Sharp (Reese Witherspoon), demonstrates from an early age her willingness to sell anything -- as long as the bidding price is high enough. Born penniless in a disreputable neighborhood, and raised as a domestic servant in a lady's finishing school, the petulant girl is determined to rise above her station. To that end, she befriends Amelia Stedley (Romola Garai), a pupil who graciously invites the orphan home to meet her eligible bachelor brother Jos (Tony Maudsley).
When those plans don't come to fruition, Becky takes a job as a governess for the Crawley family. Although the titled country dwellers prove to be too financially and culturally impoverished for her civilized tastes, all is not lost. One of the Crawley's sons is in line to inherit the fortune of a spinster aunt. With a little charm spent on the old maid, and a great deal of flaunting her virtue in front of the single gentleman, the ambitious wannabe hopes to take social climbing to mountaineering heights.
But popularity in British high society is a slippery pinnacle to attain. Desperate not to lose her foothold, Becky resorts to dangerous measures, putting everything good she has acquired at risk.
Fans of Thackeray and this genre will want to note the movie spices up the book's well mannered sexual content, with some bulging bodices, a brief shot of a female's bare bottom as she bolts from a bath, a steamy sex scene when Becky consummates her marriage (but with no explicit nudity), and a man tearing the dress of the woman on whom he is forcing his intensions. A few mild profanities, and the depiction of dozens of bloodied bodies on the battlefield may also be of concern.
Yet the film's fatal flaw is its failure to form any attachment between the main character and the audience. Nor does the movie find a heroine in anyone else. Although Amelia is written as an opposite to Becky, the school chum comes across rather dimwitted when her steady devotion for her roguish, womanizing fiance George Osborne (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), blinds her to the faithful, self-sacrificing affection of William Dobbins (Rhys Ifans).
Amidst the clutter of lavish costumes, historical sets, numerous cast members and subplots, this effort to present a case study in actions and consequences, is all in vain.