The tone takes a while to settle, but Vanity Fair turns out to be a slick period drama, writes Calum Henderson.

When the cast credits include characters like "Strumpet", "Hermit", "Posh Girl 1" and "Posh Girl 2", you know whatever you've just watched was either really good or really, really bad.

Vanity Fair, the big-budget (ITV x Amazon Studios) adaptation of William Makepeace Thackeray's classic 19th century novel, which premiered on TVNZ 1, is undoubtedly the former – though there are moments early on where you do wonder which way it's going to go.

The opening theme, a smoothed-out, Spotify playlist-friendly cover of All Along the Watchtower, is the first hint that this is all a bit snazzier than your usual note-for-note period drama. That's followed at the start of each episode by Michael Palin, playing Thackeray himself, hamming it up large in front of an old merry-go-round. He gleefully welcomes viewers to Vanity Fair: "A world where everyone is striving for what's not worth having."


When the main character Becky Sharp (Olivia Cooke) turns up and starts giving knowing looks to the camera like it's a pantomime or an early 1800s version of Miranda, you could be forgiven for asking: what exactly is the tone here? Could this whole thing be a big, overblown, extremely stylish mess? It'd probably still be worth watching if it was, but once you settle in it turns out to be deceptively clever, lively and a lot of fun.

That could also describe the character of Ms Sharp, whose satirically rags-to-riches tale this all is. The orphaned daughter of broke parents, she is determined to use her considerable charm and cunning to climb the social ladder.

"[But] it's love that matters, so much more than money," argues her well-off mate Amelia (Claudia Jessie) early in the first episode. "Depends how much you start out with," Becky replies. "When you find the right man ..." Amelia starts. "He'll have lots of money or he won't be the right man," Becky finishes.

The first "right man" is Amelia's atrocious brother, a kind of Gavin and Stacey-era James Corden type, whose own father describes him as both a "great lardy loafer and "as vain as a girl". When Amelia's absolute cad of a boyfriend puts paid to that plan, the climb begins in earnest, with Becky shipped off to Hampshire to work for the revolting boor Sir Pitt Crawley (a brilliantly cast Martin Clunes).

In a story where everyone is constantly and ruthlessly playing everyone else – Thackeray subtitled one edition of the book "A Novel Without a Hero" – it's easy to draw parallels with modern-day society. When Palin's Thackeray calls Vanity Fair "a very vain, wicked, foolish place, full of all sorts of humbug, falseness and pretension", he could just as easily be talking about Instagram.

That is something Gwyneth Hughes' adaptation leans into, and part of what makes it so much fun to watch. Olivia Cooke's performance as Becky is endlessly enjoyable, and the production is equally visually appealing – almost as if it's been filmed through an expensive Instagram beauty filter. Fair to say bonnets have never seemed so on trend.

• Vanity Fair screens on TVNZ 1, Sundays, 8.30pm, or can be streamed via TVNZ OnDemand.