Tom Jones (1963)
Release Date: October 24th, 1963 MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Director: Tony Richardson Actors: Albert Finney, Joyce Redman, Diane Cilento, Susannah York, Jack MacGowran, Wilfrid Lawson, Peter Bull, David Warner, Freda Jackson, Hugh Griffith, Edith Evans, Julian Glover, Lynn Redgrave, Joan Greenwood, David Tomlinson
n the West of England, Squire Allworthy (George Devine) stumbles upon Jenny Jones’ newborn, hidden away in the sheets of his bed. When the young woman refuses to reveal the father, Allworthy decides to raise the child as his own. Though the other family members and staff have a particularly low opinion of the baby boy, he soon grows up to be quite the scoundrel – and quite the ladies’ man.
An incorrigible hero (so-called by the narrator), Tom Jones (Albert Finney) learns to be far happier in the woods than in the study, routinely strolling through the brush to fraternize with various women (including the gamekeeper’s daughter Molly, played by Diane Cilento). When Sophie Western (Susannah York) returns from an education in France, Tom immediately sets his sights on the shapely blonde – though he still retains a modicum of decency when it comes to defending Molly from being chastised after she becomes pregnant. But when he discovers that Molly entertained a rather large assortment of men, Jones is quickly freed to pursue the more proper lady.
The film opens like a silent film (but in color) or as if it were a home video, complete with quick cuts, rapid piano riffs, and intertitles. It doesn’t advance from here in technical quality (though this was novel for the time), maintaining stiff transitional wipes, freeze-frames, montages, and interference from a jovial narrator – an omniscient presence that acknowledges the power to skip past sex scenes or anything unsavory. Tom himself also breaks the fourth wall to impart glib asides, knowing glances, or questions to the audience. The characters’ behavior (such as falling down like a plank of wood) and exaggerated laughs are all unmistakably reminiscent of a slapstick venture, splitting the festivities between simple romance and energetic visual hijinks, complete with cartoonish supporting players (like the devilishly serious tutor Thwackum, brought to life by the very fitting Peter Bull).
In this eighteenth-century world, the women admire Tom for his sexual experiences, while they are in turn ruined by his dalliances (reasoned away by explanations of nature and normalcy). It’s even suggested at one point that women secretly want to be raped and can be more agreeable afterward. Visually, the lower class is smeared with dirt and grime and greed, while the elite drunkenly wipe grease from their mouths onto their dangling wigs, which serve to catch scraps of chicken that spring from their spittle-flecking faces. Either authentic, disgusting, or both, this lighthearted, crude comedy of manners and classes soon devolves into a conundrum of misguided matchmakers arranging to keep genteel couples of status together and true lovers apart (like a wildly misogynistic skew of Jane Austen’s “Emma”).
Scant conflict enters the picture, leaving an abundance of screentime to be consumed by rambunctious deer hunts; a skull-throwing, thighbone-wielding raucous in a graveyard; playful incest; and lots of wine-influenced singing and frolicking and feasting (in one of the more memorable sequences, Finney and Joyce Redman take turns suggestively licking and chewing food items). When villains do appear, in the form of plotting stewards and jealous minions, the result is Tom’s banishment onto the road to London and into an average life of servitude. But before he can actually take up any honest work, he’s thrust into a series of insincere misadventures, mostly involving damsels in distress – all too willing to repay a moment of bravery with carnal favors. There’s also a subplot for Tom to seek out his biological father, a touch of sword-fighting, and a looming hanging – but it takes place too late for any real significance. By the time the film wraps up – and Tom manages to bed several other women of varying ages – the pacing has already been shot, turning the satisfying finale, full of coincidental reappearances and last-minute clarifications, into a marginal accomplishment.
– Mike Massie