Upon going to bed one evening, Squire Allworthy (George Devine), a gentleman in eighteenth-century England, finds a surprise waiting for him there: a baby. Neither his sister, Bridget (Rachel Kempson), nor his housekeeper, Mrs. Wilkins (Angela Baddeley), knows where it came from, but they decide that the parents must be a young woman named Jenny Jones (Joyce Redman) and Partridge the barber (Jack MacGowran). Squire Allworthy sends Jenny away to save her from shame and declares that he intends to raise the baby himself; thus begins the life of Tom Jones, “of whom the opinion of all was that he was born to be hanged.”
Tom (Albert Finney) grows up to be a lusty (in every sense of the word), good-natured young man, fond of the outdoors, shooting and women. He falls in love with Sophie Western (Susannah York), the daughter of another local squire (Hugh Griffith), and she with him, but his illegitimacy and bad reputation make a marriage between them unlikely, especially after her father and aunt (Edith Evans) decide that she should marry Allworthy’s priggish nephew Blifil (David Warner). Around this point — thanks to a smear campaign by Blifil and his tutors — Tom is kicked out of Allsworthy’s home due to his misdeeds, and sets out on his own for a series of adventures and misadventures.
Tony Richardson’s 1963 film Tom Jones is based on Henry Fielding’s 1749 novel The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling. I read the book a number of years ago and was always curious about the film, although I also knew that it was widely regarded as one of those undeserving Best Picture winners at the Academy Awards. After seeing it, I have to say that it wasn’t as obnoxiously bad as I feared it might be, but I did find it quite a slog, difficult to get into and needlessly long at over two hours. Certainly, Richardson and company tried to make it something more original and fun than a staid period piece, which seems fitting for a story about a lovable rogue. There are lots of gimmicky, playful elements, starting with a silent-film-style opening sequence. Some work better than others; personally, I enjoyed the fourth-wall-breaking that occurs several times, but the use of fast motion was a bit too sitcommy (though more appropriate here than in Richardson’s generally serious The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner), and the comedic harpsichord score got old quickly. I can’t help wondering if a heavier use of these gimmicks might have made the film, if not “better,” per se, at least more entertaining to watch, though that might have pushed it into obnoxiously bad territory instead.
Silly as it is, Tom Jones does have some substance to it. Tom may jump into bed with almost every woman he meets, but he’s kindhearted and well-intentioned, quick to defend women’s honor and protect them from harm. He’s also elated when Squire Allworthy recovers from a life-threatening injury, unlike a number of more outwardly respectable characters who are disappointed that he didn’t die and allow them to take their inheritances. In fact, many seemingly upright characters prove to be hypocritical, false, even wicked, though that’s not the case for all of them. Still, it’s not exactly a novel idea, and it isn’t compelling enough to redeem a rather unengaging film. I’m glad that I can finally check this one off of my list, but I probably won’t be revisiting it any time soon.
This post is part of the 2017 Blind Spot Series, hosted by The Matinee. My full list can be found here.