Odds are you’ve already met Becky Sharp, the heroine of Vanity Fair. Through the years, William Makepeace Thackeray’s 1848 novel has been made into seven films, six TV miniseries and three radio plays. And although Miss Sharp may not be as much of a household name as Elizabeth Bennet or Jane Eyre, she attracts megastars like Reese Witherspoon, who played her in a 2004 film version.
“I think she’s a survivor,” says Olivia Cooke (Bates Motel, Ready Player One), the latest actress to take on Thackeray’s cunning, scheming social climber in ITV and Amazon Studios’ new seven-part miniseries. “She’s wonderful, mischievous, selfish at times but an incredibly charismatic character.”
Actress Olivia Cooke vibrantly inhabits the ruthlessly opportunistic Becky Sharp.
The series follows orphaned and penniless Becky as she navigates 19th-century England’s vicious class system against the backdrop of the Napoleonic Wars — meaning plenty of bonnets and ribbons and handsome soldiers in red coats. From her humble beginnings as a reluctant governess to her ceaseless efforts to marry well and advance her social status, Becky is constantly looking to get ahead, no matter the cost. “She’s not got a great, grand plan,” director James Strong says. In fact, he says it was Cooke who pointed out that Becky is constantly improvising. “As each episode goes on, she’s changing her plan and developing with what’s in front of her.”
Becky’s ambition may turn out to be her downfall, but she finds playing it safe is no better. Her well-to-do friend Amelia (Claudia Jessie) loses everything because of her own naïveté and her inability to recognize that those around her may not have her best interests at heart. Cooke says one of the benefits of executive producer and writer Gwyneth Hughes’s contemporary take on the story is that it doesn’t pit these two characters against each other. “I think now we know that women aren’t one of two things,” she explains. “A modern audience can decide for themselves who they like and who they trust and who they aspire to be.”
Hughes’s Vanity Fair is as effervescent and enjoyable as a glass of fine champagne. It has the kind of sumptuous period details that lovers of British costume dramas crave, but Hughes and director Strong have peppered the series with modern musical cues — a cover of Jimi Hendrix’s “All Along the Watchtower” serves as the theme song, and Episode 2 ends with Madonna’s “Material Girl” — to keep it fresh for a contemporary audience. “I think previous adaptations have struggled to take the best of the book, and they get bogged down in the wrong elements,” says Strong. Hughes’s scripts, however, strike exactly the right balance, fleshing out the humor in Thackeray’s social satire. “Becky is funny,” Strong points out. “She’s snappy and she’s full of life.”
Plus, Emmy Rossum joins the show as a director.
Much of that, of course, can be credited to Cooke’s performance. “Olivia brought everything. She brought a new perspective, she brought heart, she brought wit,” raves Strong. “The key thing about Rebecca Sharp is she is unlikable in some of the things she does. What Olivia managed to do was make every single choice that Becky made real and relatable, and you understood that sometimes all human beings can be selfish. That’s the truth of human nature.”
Vanity Fair, Series Premiere, Friday, Dec. 21, Amazon Prime Video