Vanity Fair episode 1 review: Miss Sharp In The Presence Of The Enemy

Olivia Cooke shines so brightly as Becky Sharp in ITV’s new Vanity Fair that everything else fades a little into the background…

Vanity Fair ITV
Photo: ITV

 This review contains spoilers

First: why is this being reviewed on Den of Geek? They’re all aliens, honest. The anteannae are tucked under the wigs, that’s the trick to it.

Becky Sharp (Olivia Cooke, brilliant) might as well be an alien in the eyes of prim schoolmistress Miss Pinkerton (Suranne Jones, also great but hardly in it). Becky is low-born but refuses to apologise for it; she’s a girl in the nineteenth century but won’t let it stop her. 

Between Cooke, writer Gwyneth Hughes and director James Strong, this adaptation paints an admiring picture of Thackeray’s manipulative heroine. Quick of mind and sharp of tongue, Becky’s guile and cynicism make her feel every bit as modern as she always has, whatever the era. 

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Becky feels more contemporary here in fact, thanks to the addition of Fleabag-style knowing looks to camera – saucily raising an eyebrow when bowed at by a hunky footman or rolling her eyes when simpered at by a wealthy bachelor.

Incidentally, Vanity Fair composer Isobel Waller-Bridge is the Fleabag creator’s sister and scored that show too. Her work here is light and frothy, the accompaniment to a period comedy slightly skewed modern, which more or less describes the whole thing. A breathy John Lewis Christmas ad Dylan cover opens proceedings, while Madonna hit Material Girl closes an episode. In terms of tone, think the eclectic vim of Moulin Rouge, with slightly fewer fireworks.

Fireworks there are, and a hot air balloon. Episode one takes Becky and co. on a night out to the famously iniquitous Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens, where Poldark, from the same production company, also spent the summer hanging out. (It must have been two-for-one on acrobats and monkeys in little hats.) This boutique festival, with its fortune-telling hermits and rack-punch is almost the imagined allegorical fair of the title.

The episodes actually opens in said imaginary fair, with Michael Palin as narrator Thackeray setting an enchanted carousel in motion by clicking his fingers and ushering us into the “vain, wicked, foolish place”. Setting out her stall, party girl Becky is having a whale of a time riding a painted pony. It’s a symbolic way in, alerting viewers to the performance and artifice to come. 

Episode one is filled with all the usual genre ingredients—giggling girls in pastels and bonnets, carriages and soldiers in regimentals—but covered over with an extra layer of irony. Vanity Fair’s time period puts it at half-past Austen and a quarter to Dickens, but there’s a modern feel to the gags here. It’s full of silliness (“My other pony is a palamino,” is one bumper-sticker line) and the goat curry scene is staged in full. A twenty-first century consciousness is present too, in the discomfort of Mr Sedley’s chortling racism, expressed in earshot of his black manservant Sam.

Becky’s arrival in Hampshire also gives the adaptation the chance to try on a bit of nineteenth-century Gothic too, with a fog-shrouded country pile, grotesque new master Sir Pitt-Cawley MP and his menacing wolfhound “partial to a young lady”.

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For Becky Sharp to work, indeed, for any antihero to work, we have to enjoy their mischief despite their corruption. This Becky Sharp works. We want her to prevail over stuffy schoolmarms and moneyed dolts, and especially to prevail over snobs like Amelia’s betrothed George Osbourne. We want Little Miss Who-Does-She-Think-She-Is to take the world by storm, just as Olivia Cooke takes this episode. Cooke is so sparkling here, in fact, the one concern is that everything else and everyone else struggles to be quite as scintillating. 

Vanity Fair continues on Monday the 3rdof September at 9pm on ITV.