“THE HISTORY OF TOM JONES, A FOUNDLING” (1997) Review

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THE HISTORY OF TOM JONES, A FOUNDLING” (1997) Review

The year 1963 saw the release of Tony Richardson’s Academy Award winning adaptation of Henry Fielding’s 1749 novel,“The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling”. Another thirty-four years passed before another adaptation of the novel appeared on the scene. It turned out to be the BBC’s five-episode miniseries that aired in 1997. 

“THE HISTORY OF TOM JONES, A FOUNDLING” is a comic tale about the life and adventures of an English foundling, who is discovered in the household of a warm-hearted landowner in Somerset named Squire Allworthy. The latter adopts the child and Tom Jones grows up to be a lusty, yet kindly youth; who falls in love with one Sophia Western, the only child of Allworthy’s neighbor, Squire Western. Tom is raised with the squire’s nephew, a falsely pious and manipulative young man named Mr. Blifil. Because the latter is Allworthy’s heir, Sophia’s father wishes her to marry Mr. Blifil, so that the Allworthy and Western estates can be joined as one. Unfortunately for Squire Western and Mr. Blifil, Sophia is in love with Tom. And unfortunately for the two young lovers, Tom is discredited by Mr. Blifil and his allies before being cast away by Squire Allworthy. In defiance of Squire Western’s wishes for her to marry Mr. Blifil, Sophia (accompanied by her maid, Honour) runs away from Somerset. Both Tom and Sophia encounter many adventures on the road to and in London, before they are finally reconciled.

Actually, there is a lot more to “THE HISTORY OF TOM JONES, A FOUNDLING”. But a detailed account of the plot would require a long essay and I am not in the mood. I have noticed that the 1997 miniseries has acquired a reputation for not only being a first-rate television production, but also being superior to the 1963 Oscar winning film. As a five-part miniseries, “THE HISTORY OF TOM JONES, A FOUNDLING” was able to adhere more closely to Fielding’s novel than the movie. But does this mean I believe that the miniseries is better than the movie? Hmmmm . . . I do not know if I can agree with that opinion.

I cannot deny that “THE HISTORY OF TOM JONES, A FOUNDLING” is a well made television production. Director Metin Hüseyin did an excellent job of utilizing a first-rate production crew for the miniseries. Cinders Forshaw’s photography was well done – especially in Somerset sequences featured in the miniseries’ first half. Roger Cann’s production designs captured mid-18th century England in great detail. And Rosalind Ebbutt’s costumes designs were not only exquisite, but nearly looked like exact replicas of the fashions of the 1740s. The look and style of “THE HISTORY OF TOM JONES, A FOUNDLING” seemed to recapture the chaos and color of mid-18th century England.

“THE HISTORY OF TOM JONES, A FOUNDLING” could also boast some first-rate performances. The miniseries featured solid performances from the likes of Christopher Fulford and Richard Ridings as Mr. Blifil’s allies, Mr. Square and Reverend Thwackum; Kathy Burke, who was very funny as Sophia’s maid, Honour; Celia Imrie as Tom’s London landlady, Mrs. Miller; Peter Capaldi as the lecherous Lord Fellamar; Tessa Peake-Jones as Squire Allworthy’s sister Bridget and Benjamin Whitrow as the squire. The episode also featured solid turns from the likes of Kelly Reilly, Camille Coduri, Matt Bardock, Roger Lloyd-Pack, and Sylvester McCoy. Max Beesley was solid as Tom Jones. He also had good chemistry with his leading lady, Samantha Morton, and did a good job in carrying the miniseries on his shoulders. However, I do feel that he lacked the charisma and magic of Albert Finney. And there were times in the miniseries’ last two episodes, when he seemed in danger of losing steam.

But there were some performances that I found outstanding. Brian Blessed was deliciously lusty and coarse as Squire Western, Allworthy’s neighbor and Sophia’s father. I really enjoyed his scenes with Frances de la Tour, who was marvelous as Sophia’s snobbish and controlling Aunt Western. Lindsay Duncan gave a subtle performance as the seductive Lady Bellaston. James D’Arcy was outstanding as Squire Allworthy’s nephew, the sniveling and manipulative Mr. Blifil. Ron Cook gave the funniest performance in the miniseries, as Tom’s loyal sidekick, Benjamin Partridge, who had earlier suffered a series of misfortunes over the young man’s birth. Samantha Morton gave a superb performance as Tom’s true love, Sophia Western. Morton seemed every inch the graceful and passionate Sophia, and at the same time, conveyed the strong similarities between the young woman and her volatile father. But the one performance I truly enjoyed was John Sessions’ portrayal of author Henry Fielding. I thought it was very clever to use Sessions in that manner as the miniseries’ narrator. And he was very entertaining.

The producers of the miniseries hired Simon Burke to adapt the novel for television. And I believe he did an excellent job. I cannot deny that the miniseries’ running time allowed him to include scenes from the novel. Thanks to Burke’s script and Hüseyin’s direction, audiences were given more details on the accusations against Jenny Jones and Benjamin Partridge for conceiving Tom. Audiences also experienced Bridget Jones’ relationship with her cold husband and the circumstances that led to the conception of Mr. Blifil. Judging from the style and pacing of the miniseries, it seems that Hüseyin was inspired by Tony Richardson’s direction of the 1963 film. There were plenty of raunchy humor and nudity to keep a viewer occupied. More importantly, “THE HISTORY OF TOM JONES, A FOUNDLING” proved to be a fascinating comic epicand commentary on class distinctions, gender inequality and social issues.

However, I still cannot agree with the prevailing view that the miniseries is better than the 1963 movie. Mind you, the latter is not perfect. But the miniseries lacked a cinematic style that gave the movie a certain kind of magic for me. And due to Hüseyin and Burke’s insistence on being as faithful to the novel as possible, the miniseries’ pacing threatened to drag in certain scenes. The scenes featuring Tom and Partridge’s encounter with an ineffectual highwayman, their viewing of a puppet show, and a good deal from the London sequences were examples of the miniseries’ slow pacing. I could not help feeling that “THE HISTORY OF TOM JONES, A FOUNDLING” could have easily been reduced to four episodes and still remain effective.

I also had a few problems with other matters. One, I never understood why Lady Bellaston continued her campaign to get Sophia married to Lord Fellamar, after Squire Western prevented the peer from raping his daughter. Why did she continued to make life miserable for Tom after receiving his marriage proposal . . . the same proposal that she rejected with contempt? And what led Sophia to finally forgive Tom for the incident with Mrs. Waters at Upton and his marriage proposal to Lady Bellaston? After he was declared as Squire Allworthy’s new heir, Sophia refused to forgive Tom for his affair with Lady Bellaston. But the next shot featured Tom and Squire Allworthy returning to Somerset . . . and being greeted by Sophia, along with hers and Tom’s children. WHAT HAPPENED? What led Sophia to finally forgive Tom and marry him? Instead of explaining or hinting what happened, Burke’s script ended on that vague and rather disappointing note.

But despite my problems with “THE HISTORY OF TOM JONES, A FOUNDLING”, I cannot deny that I found it very enjoyable. Director Metin Hüseyin and screenwriter Simon Burke did a first-rate job in bringing Henry Fielding’s comic opus to life. They were ably assisted by an excellent production staff and fine performances from a cast led by Max Beesley and Samantha Morton.

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