Monday, June 14, 2010
Director Tony Richardson’s brilliant 1963 adaptation of Henry Fielding’s 18th-century novel Tom Jones is silly, smart, and endlessly energetic. Richardson, one of the young British directors who pioneered the kitchen sink school of social realism, was quoted in his New York Times obit as saying he was tired of filming “the rainy, industrial cities of the North” when he came up with the idea for this film. “I wanted something full of color and fun," he said.
Richardson’s comic romp packs in all the key episodes of Fielding’s busy plot. The birth and adoption of the bastard infant Tom Jones is covered in a brisk prologue shot in the style of a silent film, complete with exclamation-studded title cards and Keystone Cops-style music. Then the credits run and we’re back to conventional sound for a story that’s divided into almost equal halves. In the first, we follow the young adult Tom (a beautiful young Albert Finney) as he grows up on his adoptive father’s estate, fools around with the gamekeeper’s daughter, and falls for the lovely and sensible Sophie Weston (Susannah York), the daughter of a neighboring landowner. In the second, we go on the road with Tom after he’s banished from the estate and forbidden to see Sophie.
Fielding was the first novelist to keep reminding his followers that they’re reading a piece of fiction. Richardson translates those reminders into devices like stopping action in freeze frames, having characters address the camera directly, and adding a worldy-wise narrator who comments wryly on the characters’ progress.
Fielding piled on the distractions like a novelistic Jerry Bruckheimer, starting with Tom and Sophie’s idealized and ultimately triumphant love. There are the swordfights the gallant Tom keeps getting into as he defends the honor of one woman or another and the Dickensian coincidences in which people keep running into people they’re intimately connected with – often in ways they never suspected. There are farcical sequences where people rush in and out of rooms, narrowly missing each other. And there’s plenty of sex as Tom pauses to dally with a nonstop procession of women and girls.
Unusually explicit for their time, the sex scenes seem pretty tame now, but they still feel fresh – and far more life-affirming than most of the face-sucking and soft-core porn that passes for love-making in movies these days. Richardson finds ingenious ways to imply the guilt-free and fully consensual game that sex seems to be for Tom and his partners, most famously in the foreplay scene where Tom and one of his bedmates face each other at a dining table, trading quiet grunts and sleepy smiles as they devour their food in more and more explicit ways.
But Fielding and Richardson were also interested in social commentary, so Tom encounters outcasts and low-lives as well as the posh set on his action-packed journey to London. The movie’s impressively detailed and often convincingly greasy and grimy costumes and sets make it one of the earliest realistic portrayals of 18th century England. In one unforgettable set piece, a bloodthirsty horde of dogs and lords on horseback stream after a terrified hind, abusing their own horses and trampling other people’s barnyard animals until they overtake the poor thing and tear it to shreds.
The people in this social satire are broadly drawn types, which must have presented the actors with a challenge. But they rise to the occasion almost without exception, stressing one note to the point of absurdity without ever winking at the audience or descending into camp caricature. Fielding’s parade of hypocrites, fools, and a few honest folk gives us some delicious villains, like the Lady Bellaston (Joan Greenwood), who sounds like Elizabeth Ashley and acts like Prince Machiavelli, or the poisonously envious Bilfil (David Warner), who hides his black heart under an unctuous exterior.
A good man who sees only good in the people he meets, Jones is as one-sided as the others. He’s a sweetheart, but the real star of this movie is its all-seeing, all-knowing narrator, Fielding’s authorial voice translated to celluloid. A man of the world who can forgive just about every sin but hypocrisy, he invites us to embrace our imperfect selves and meet life with an open heart, like Tom Jones always does.