WFTB Score: 14/20
The plot: Although abandoned baby Tom is brought up as the son of the virtuous Squire Allworthy, few of his guardian’s virtues rub off on the lad, who proves to be a charming but incorrigible rogue and too much of a hit with the ladies for the liking of his true love Sophie’s father. Cast out into the world, Tom heads to London, where by coincidence Sophie has also fled; but before they can be reunited, Tom finds mortal enemies – and more than a few dangerous women – lying in his path.
Before that spoilsport Jane Austen came along and sublimated all the passion into fervently-written letters, country dances and chaste proposals, the English novel could be a hotbed of sex and debauchery, nowhere more so than in Henry Fielding’s The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling. But with the sixties just getting into swing, would the lusty youngster prove as much of a hit as his equally rambunctious Welsh namesake?
Tom begins his life as a foundling in the bed of Squire Allworthy (George Devine), the presumed son of wanton servant Jenny Jones. The mother is sent away and Allworthy raises the child as if he were his own; but as he becomes a young man, Tom (Albert Finney) proves to have a weakness for women, beginning with local strumpet Molly (Diane Cilento), whose swelling belly causes scandal at church and puts a dampener on Tom’s burgeoning relationship with his neighbour Sophie (Susannah York), the innocent daughter of red-faced bon viveur Squire Western (Hugh Griffith). When Tom rescues Sophie from a bolting horse, the pair seem destined to make a match; however, the young man has enemies in the shape of Mr Thwackum and Mr Square (Peter Bull and John Moffatt), tutors to Allworthy’s pious nephew Blifil (David Warner); and when Tom and Sophie’s love is discovered, they persuade Allworthy to send Tom away – the fact that Blifil has been promised to Sophie doesn’t help Tom‘s cause, either.
Sophie escapes from the planned union to be with her cousin Mrs Fitzpatrick in London (herself fleeing from an angry husband), whilst Tom makes his way in the world, picking up an unfortunate and very hungry female traveller called Mrs Waters (Joyce Redman) on the way. Sophie and Tom’s paths are destined to cross more than once, with Tom making something of a rake’s progress as he endures an up-and-down journey, in quick turn becoming the target of Mr Fitzpatrick’s anger, the plaything of wealthy London socialite Lady Bellaston (Joan Greenwood) and a convict destined for the noose.
I’ve said before (and will no doubt say again) that period films often say more about the time they were filmed in than the time they portray, and this is certainly true of Tom Jones. Richardson’s film comes from a time when studios were starting to enjoy being naughty (in Britain, the Carry on series was finding its feet), and Fielding’s novel is a heady mixture of bawdiness and comedy, brought to life vividly in easy-to-follow fashion by John Osborne’s humorous, unpretentious screenplay (with helpful narration to fill in any gaps).
The film is very saucy without being sleazy, and its irreverent experimentation with film techniques only occasionally feels dated. There’s much pleasure to be had in the famous eating scene involving Finney and Redman, for example, and a dynamic and exciting sense of speed to the hunt sequence; filmed with hand-held, aerial photography, the noise and chaos of the chase is vividly brought to the screen. This section in particular will do nothing for animal lovers, but it makes the film feel fresh and proves that there is more substantial fare on offer than simply a bawdy comedy. The film’s weightier moments – such as Tom’s taunting of his foes when Allworthy unexpectedly recovers from illness, denying them a fortune, or the grottiness of Newgate prison – offset some of Richardson’s less successful experiments, such as the camera swirling about the flowers to indicate the giddiness of Tom and Sophie’s love, the indulgent, sly looks to camera or the sometimes too-frantic score. I’m not a big fan of the sped-up film in some of the comic scenes either, since they remind me of Benny Hill; but this is a matter of taste and Tom Jones can‘t be blamed for what followed it.
All the film’s good work would be for nothing were the performances not up to scratch, but luckily everyone who matters (and indeed everyone who doesn’t matter so much) is very good. Finney makes our hero pleasingly feckless but essentially good-hearted, while York is sweet without being insipid and Griffith is splendidly boisterous as her father, always on the lookout for a hunt or a roll in the hay; David Warner, who does disdainful superiority like few others, is also excellent. There are also lively comic performances from Edith Evans as Western’s interfering sister, Patsy Rowlands as Sophie’s maid Honor and Peter Bull’s Thwackum, Bull a man with a face born to be outraged. Special mention should go to Joyce Redman for the moment when the film scandalously – though briefly – implies that Tom has lain with his own mother: her look to camera is priceless.
For many reasons, Tom Jones was one of the Best Picture winners I didn’t particularly look forward to watching; I imagined it would either be a dry telling of a fusty 18th Century tale or a movie that tried too hard to be funky and relevant to its original 60s audience. However, whilst both of these are true to some extent, Richardson’s film is surprisingly funny and easy to watch. And whilst it’s never glib about the source material, it treats Fielding’s novel neither as a precious gem nor a vague template to be discarded at will. Future adaptors of prim Miss Austen may wish to take note.