“TOM JONES” (1963) Review

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“TOM JONES” (1963) Review

Recently, I searched my memories for any movies produced outside of the United States that not only won the Academy Award for Best Picture, but I would also consider a personal favorite of mine. Only one came to mind – the 1963 movie,“TOM JONES”

“TOM JONES” turned out to be the second non-Hollywood film that won the coveted Oscar prize. Directed by Tony Richardson, the movie is an adaptation of Henry Fielding’s 1749 novel, “The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling”, about the coming-of-age and misadventures of an illegitimate young man, raised by a landowner in mid-18th century England. I might as well start from the beginning. Sometime during the 1720s, one Squire Allworthy returned home to his Somerset estate and found an abandoned infant in his bedroom. Demanding to learn the identity of the infant’s parents, the Squire learned from his housekeeper and other servants that the child’s parents were a local schoolmaster named Partridge and a servant girl named Jenny Jones. Squire Allworthy banished both from the immediate neighborhood and became the baby’s new guardian.

Named Tom Jones, the infant grew up to become a charming, handsome and slightly roguish young. He also became friendly with most of the locals, especially his guardian’s neighbor, Squire Western. Tom’s good looks and charm not only captured the eyes of Squire Western’s only child, Sophie, but also Molly Seagrim, the promiscuous daughter of a local poacher named Black George Seagrim. But malignant forces in the form of Squire Allworthy’s venomous nephew, Mr. Blifil, the tutors for both young men – Mr. Thwackum and Mr. Square, and Tom’s own personal vices; eventually lead Squire Allworthy to order the young hero’s departure from the Allworthy estate. Tom sets out for London, where more acquaintances and adventures await.

I first saw the Best Picture Oscar winner, “TOM JONES”, on television, when I was in my early teens. And I immediately fell in love. Mind you, my love for the movie has not blinded me from its flaws that are featured in the last ten minutes. It felt so rushed. And it seemed as if director Tony Richardson had retold Henry Fielding’s tale with a great deal of detail and atmosphere, before he lost his impatience and rushed the last few minutes of the movie’s narrative. Richardson and screenwriter John Osbourne never allowed the audiences to witness Lawyer Dowling’s revelation to Squire Allworthy of the details in the letter written by the Squire’s late sister, Mrs. Bridget Allworthy Blifil. Instead, they allowed the Mrs. Waters character to break the fourth wall and inform the audiences of the letter’s contents. I found this very frustrating, especially since the audience was denied the Squire’s immediate reaction. I also found the appearance of Lieutenant Norton, the Army officer whom Tom prevented from harming Mrs. Waters on the journey to London. By some bad coincidence, Norton managed to rejoin the Army and ended up leading the detail that escorted Tom to a public execution. For me, this is coincidence of the cheap kind. But as I had stated earlier, my complaints are few.

Overall, “TOM JONES” strikes me as a beautiful and lively film to watch. I have the feeling that it ushered in a new style for period movies on both sides of the Atlantic. One, the movie lacked the gloss that marred the realism of most costume dramas before 1963. Richardson approached the story’s earthiness, sexuality and violence with a great deal of realism without any overindulgence. Prime examples of the director’s approach could be found in famous scenes like Tom and Mrs. Waters’ lusty supper at the Upton Inn, Tom and Mr. Partridge’s colorful entry into mid-18th century London, and the fox hunt sequence that still delivers quite a cinematic punch after fifty years. Richardson also utilized a filming style used in comedies from the silent era with great effect in scenes that included Squire Allworthy’s discovery of the infant Tom and the romantic chaos that ensued following Mr. Fitzgerald’s erroneous interruption of Tom and Mrs. Waters’ nocturnal activities at Upton.

I have to express my admiration for John McCorry’s costumes. I believe they perfectly reflected the fashions for all classes in Britain of the 1740s, without any pesky 20th century influences. Both Ralph W. Brinton’s production designs and Josie MacAvin’s set decorations conveyed Richardson’s earthy and realistic view of mid-18th century Britain. Brinton and MacAvin earned Oscar nominations, along with Ted Marshall for his art direction. “TOM JONES” was filmed mainly in the rural areas of Somerset and Dorset. And Walter Lassally’s photography captured the beauty of the English countryside with a natural elegance and zest that I found very appealing. It seemed a pity that he was not recognized with an Oscar nomination. I feel he deserved it . . . especially for his work on the fox hunt and London arrival sequences. On the other hand, John Addison won the Best Score Oscar for his work on the film. I cannot deny that I found his music for the film truly outstanding. It beautifully captured the spirit and atmosphere of the movie’s setting. Despite my pure satisfaction of Addison’s score, a part of me still wishes that Elmer Bernstein had won that Oscar for the “HOW THE WEST WAS WON” score.

I read somewhere that Albert Finney found the character of Tom Jones something of a bore. If he did find the character boring, it is a credit to his acting skills and perseverance that his boredom never appeared in his performance. In fact, I believe he gave a sparkling, charismatic and star-making portrayal of one of the most charming and roguish characters in English literature . . . and earned a Best Picture Oscar nomination for his work. I have no idea how Susannah York felt about the character of Sophie Western. For me, it does not matter. She was a delight, as far as I am concerned. More importantly, she infused a great deal of fire into her performance, reminding viewers that despite the well-mannered and elegant appearance, she is her father’s daughter. Speaking of Squire Western, Hugh Griffith seemed to be having a ball, portraying the lively and somewhat coarse landowner, Squire Western. It was not surprising to learn that he had earned a Best Supporting Actor nomination for his performance. Three other cast members earned Oscar nominations – Edith Evans, who gave an energetic performance as Squire Western’s caustic and snobbish sister; Diane Cilento, whose portrayal of Molly Seagrim seemed to be an interesting mixture of sexiness and desperation; and Joyce Readman, who radiated a more mature sexiness in her portrayal of Mrs. Waters, Tom’s famous companion at the Upton Inn.

I do wish the Academy had considered Joan Greenwood for a nomination. I was very impressed by her subtle, yet malevolent portrayal of the lustful, yet insidious Lady Bellaston. The movie also featured some solid performances from the likes of George Devine, who gave a solid and heart-warming performance as Squire Allworthy; David Tomlinson as the sexually aggresive Lord Fellamar; Jack MacGowran as Tom’s faithful companion, Partridge; and George A. Cooper as Sophie’s hot-headed cousin-in-law, Mr. Fitzpatrick. Four other performances struck me as noteworthy. One came from Rachel Kempson, who not only gave a brief, yet solid performance as Bridget Allworthy Blifil, but also happened to be Richardson’s mother-in-law. The second one belonged to well-known character actor David Warner. “TOM JONES” not only featured his film debut, but also featured the first of many villainous roles he would portray over the years. Also in the movie was Julian Glover, who also made an impressive film debut in “TOM JONES” as a villain, namely Lieutenant Northerton. And Richardson’s sister-in-law, Lynn Redgrave, made her film debut in a brief scene as a maid at Upton Inn.

I read somewhere that Tony Richardson was never satisfied with his work on “TOM JONES”. According to cinematographer Walter Lassally, an unsatisfied Richardson tinkered a bit too much with the movie’s editing during the post-production period. Perhaps that is why the movie is not particularly perfect. But neither Richardson’s unsatisfied tinkering or Albert Finney’s boredom with the main character could mar what became one of my favorite Oscar winning movies of all time . . . or cause Richardson to lose his Best Director Oscar. After half a century, “TOM JONES” has lost none of its magic.

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“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.