Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington

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Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane

Deacon Eric Meisfjord, Editor
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302

Media Watch
From a stranger on a train to 'Vanity Fair'

by Father Tom Caswell, for the Inland Register

(From the Sept. 30, 2004 edition of the Inland Register)

A year ago August I was on the train from Gatwick Airport to downtown London on my eventual way to an educational event in St. Andrew’s, Scotland. The train stopped not far from the airport to allow local British riders on because of a train failure. A dapper-dressed 70-year-old man sat next to me. I engaged him in conversation and he told me he was an actor. I asked if he had been in any movie I would have seen. The gentleman, whose name was Tony Maudsley, said he would be in a new version of William Makepeace Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, coming out in a year. Mr. Maudsley did remark that the star of the film, Reese Witherspoon, was a very kind and wonderful person in real life.

Webster’s Dictionary from Random House says that the title Vanity Fair comes from John Bunyan’s book The Pilgrim’s Progress, referring to a faire that goes on perpetually in the town of Vanity and symbolizes worldly ostentation and frivolity.

In two hours and 20 minutes, the new film Vanity Fair attempts to tell the vast story of Becky Sharp (Reese Witherspoon) in her upward journey to the highest classes of 19th century British society. The 900-plus-page novel proves difficult to condense. Witherspoon is beautiful and on the screen most of the film. She plays Becky Sharp, usually stereotyped to be a scheming conniving social climber, as a determined woman from the lower classes who sometimes acts in an almost heroic manner. One fault of the film is that Becky and many of the other characters do not show their age in a story that encompasses 30 years or so. Witherspoon’s youthful beauty dominates the screen even when she is well into her 40s.

When she is a young teacher of two daughters of a relatively poor Sir Pitt Crawley (Bob Hoskins) in the Hampshire countryside, Becky meets a rich sister of his from London. The sister, Miss Matilda Crawley (Eileen Atkins), enjoys the wit and beauty of Becky so much that she invites Becky to come and live with her in her beautiful Mayfair home in London.

Becky connives to marry the beloved nephew (James Purefoy) of Matilda. The result is that both Becky and the nephew are thrown out of Matilda’s home and the nephew is disinherited.

Along comes the Battle of Waterloo in Belgium against Napoleon, where the nephew, Rawdon Crawley, and other friends of Becky go into battle. The results deeply influence many of the key characters’ lives. Becky and Rawdon have a son and struggle to live in a style to which both of them have become accustomed.

The last third of the movie centers on Becky’s willingness to give up love and family to rise to the top of London society with the help of her benefactor, the Marquess of Steyne (Gabriel Byrne). She makes it, but the film does stick to some of Thackeray’s withering criticism of the shallowness of the class system. And finally Becky falls victim to that same artificial world. The film gives her a chance for a very colorful redemption.

If you like an epic expanse of a Masterpiece Theatre-type production you will enjoy this beautifully filmed version of Vanity Fair. Director Mira Nair gives the story an East Indian gloss. But in the end Reese Witherspoon is probably just too nice to give the story all the conflict it needs.

By the way, the acquaintance I made on the Gatwick train, Tony Maudsley, plays the father of Becky’s best friend, Amelia Sedley (Romola Garai). He is on the screen early on in the film. I think he does a credible job, but then I’m probably biased.

Vanity Fair is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America. It has mild sexual situations. The U.S. Catholic Bishops’ Office for Film and Broadcasting rates Vanity Fair A-III – adults.


In March a friend asked me to read the script to the film We Don’t Live Here Anymore. The script is based on two short stories by Andre Dubus. As I told my friend, the subject of adultery among two couples who are friends is a real downer, unless the acting is extraordinary.

Well, the film We Don’t Live Here Anymore is out and I can tell you the acting is memorable, which makes this small thoughtful film one of the year’s best films.

Jack Linden ( Mark Ruffalo) is an English literature professor at Cedar County College in a New England town. He is married to Terry (Laura Dern). As the movie begins we soon realize that Jack is having a torrid affair with Terry’s best friend Edith (Naomi Watts). To top it off, Edith’s husband Hank (Peter Krause) is Jack’s best friend, who teaches creative writing at the same university. So we have webs woven that have the makings of a disaster.

At times Jack narrates the film with a voice over. We know he is drawn to Edith like a moth to fire. And yet we also know there is a certain guilt that permeates his actions. He knows lobsters are his wife’s favorite food. So he continually brings home a lobster to Terry, which in some way is his peace offering.

The film looks straight ahead into the damage of marital unfaithfulness. We see the children of both families at times loved but often seen as obstacles to mothers’ and fathers’ illicit sexual pleasure.

The film clearly asks the question: What does adultery do to the participants and their families? And how can best friends do this to each other?

Several times in the film a train goes by a crossing with a red light that seems to be asking the question, can’t we stop the devastating affair we have begun?

Throughout the film, director John Curran centers on the eyes of the principal characters. We continually look into their souls through their expressive eyes.

The haunting classical music by Michael Convertino continually enhances the emotion of the film. The cinematography by Maryse Alberti is wonderful in giving us the passing seasons of a year that show us life will go on and deeply pained individuals will somehow survive.

Mark Ruffalo acts superbly as the husband who loves his children and in some way loves his wife, even as he continually lashes out at her for her inability to keep their home clean and neat. In the process of seeing his anger we continually see his self-loathing for what he is doing to both his wife and his best friend.

Laura Dern as the adoring wife facing the end of all she holds dear has the stand-out role of the film. She is extraordinary.

Peter Krause as the narcissistic writer and teacher catches the right note as he seems oblivious to how many people he hurts with his continuing philandering. He is the least appealing of the four characters and he seems unwilling to change.

Naomi Watts gives just the right balance of the thrill and the sadness of unfaithfulness. She enjoys the experience as she seeks to find what it means to live again and yet we sense her pain and sadness.

We Don’t Live Here Anymore is a film that takes the viewer into darkness and into glimmers of light. Even with all its sadness it is a film to see and remember.

We Don’t Live Here Anymore is rated R – Restricted, for language and sexual themes, by the Motion Picture Association of America. The U.S. Bishops’ office for Film and Broadcasting rates We Don’t Live Here Anymore L — limited adult audience, films whose problematic content many adults would find troubling.

Media Note

In the Aug. 17 issue of the Inland Register I recommended for adults the new drama on the FX network, titled Rescue Me. I made my recommendation based on the first two episodes which I had seen. Subsequent episodes have emphasized locker-room humor, violence against women, and gratuitous sex. I no longer recommend Rescue Me.

(Father Caswell is pastor of St. Rose of Lima Parish, Cheney, and Ecumenical Relations Officer for the Diocese of Spokane. His reviews frequently appear in the Cheney Free Press.)

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