In the title sequence of all seven episodes of Amazon’s enjoyable adaptation of “Vanity Fair,” we hear a dreamy version of Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower” by Afterhere. It’s set by a surreal merry-go-round at night, where Michael Palin in a top hat, playing “Vanity Fair” author William Makepeace Thackeray, briefs us on the upcoming chapter — evoking the meta side of the 19th-century novel, in which the author comments on the action and the writer’s prerogative. Meanwhile, the lead characters from the miniseries ride on the painted ponies at the fair, going up and down in slow motion and laughing like fools.
So right from the start, this production suggests a modern interpretation of an inventive early satire that contained modern elements, particularly in terms of anti-heroism. As the horses turn, we see a smiling Becky Sharp (Olivia Cooke), the opportunistic, manipulative, deceitful woman at the center of the story, lean back and let out a giant “Whoo!” that sounds very 21st century. You expect comic anarchy to follow this kind of opening, with lots of clever twists to bring out the dark humor and self-awareness of Thackeray’s work.
But the truth is, almost everything else about this Amazon adaptation, which is available on Friday, is straight-ahead — contemporized here and there in the same way PBS’s “Victoria” is, and fitted with recent songs over the closing credits and a slight bit of racial consciousness, but always grounded in the original chronicle. It’s more conventional than we are led to believe — and I mean that in a positive way. “Vanity Fair” builds into a tight ensemble romp, particularly after the first episode, as screenwriter Gwyneth Hughes (“Five Days”) teases out the love stories and the class conflicts from the novel. It’s well-acted all around and paced briskly enough to take up seven hours without filler. There’s nothing particularly ingenious about it; but there’s no looking down on a good story smartly told.
Becky is a victim of her low birth, to an art teacher and a dancer, and that’s particularly hard for her since she’s so much brighter and more driven than the wealthy, educated people who surround and judge her. You root for her. But the miniseries doesn’t reduce her to a symbol of social inequity; she is clearly a climber with no conscience and no compassion, not even for the son she eventually gives birth to. Even when the system works for her, she wants more than her share and suffers as a result. That’s part of the fun, watching Becky’s fate go up and down, just like those merry-go-round horses. Cooke gives us a woman who thoroughly enjoys devising secret plots, and occasionally looking into the camera at us, as if to say: “Get a load of these stupid people!”
The filmmakers chose “All Along the Watchtower,” but the Dylan lyric she makes me think of is: “When you got nothing, you got nothing to lose.”
The miniseries truly comes to life in the second episode, when Aunt Matilda shows up, with the actress who plays her, Frances de la Tour, delivering a wonderfully cranky, absurd turn. Her appearance made me feel the same pleasure I used to feel when Maggie Smith would appear on “Downton Abbey” to lay some thick attitude on everyone. Becky has failed to marry her schoolmate Amelia’s cowardly brother, Jos, and she has gone to the fading Crawley mansion as a governess. The minute Matilda visits the Crawleys, her inheritance still up for grabs, Becky makes a play for her affection, and the two become like peas in a pod — a bit like the ladies sidling up to Queen Anne in “The Favourite.” Becky can change herself to suit any situation, and watching them bond is a joy. So is watching them fall apart, once Becky crosses Matilda and secretly marries Matilda’s nephew, Rawdon (a perfectly hollow Tom Bateman).
If you’re a fan of these adaptations, many of which tend to show up on PBS’s “Masterpiece,” I think you’ll find something pleasing in this “Vanity Fair” — not heroes and heroines stirring about waiting for their happy endings, of course, but something far more scandalous and universal.
Starring: Olivia Cooke, Tom Bateman, Charlie Rowe, Claudia Jessie, Simon Russell Beale, Claire Skinner, Frances de La Tour, Michael Palin. On: Amazon, available Friday