Dear Friends and readers,
About 8 months ago, I wrote a blog review comparing Tony Richardson’s 1963 Tom Jones and Stanley Kubrick’s 1977 Barry Lyndon, vowing to myself that I would follow this up with a blog review on the 1997 Tom Jones by Simon Burke, Metin Huseyin, and Suzanne Harrison.
Many things got in the way, including rereading all Richardson’s Clarissa for a second year in a row and adding to writing about the 1991 BBC Clarissa, a paper on rape in the novel. It was when in the course of this I read a paper on rape in Fielding’s Tom Jones that I remember my original impulse.
Well, I watched the movie and just loved it. It was a intelligent entertaining thoughtful film rightly declared (at its close) “affectionately dedicated to Mr Fielding:”
Actually I didn’t just watch it once. I watched it three times — the third taking down some of the screenplay and capturing lots of shots as I went along, like this one of Patridge (Ron Cook) joining up with Tom. The good feeling behind the kiss is characteristic of this film in its fleeting joyful moments:
But before I wrote, I wanted to reread all of Fielding’s Tom Jones. Not having the time, I found for $16 a set of audiotapes of the complete novel read aloud inimitably by David Case. Alas, alas, my tape deck broke half-way through.
And then I conceived a desire to write a few blogs about film adaptations from 18th versus 19th century sources to see the differences. This I thought would help me make sense of Huyesin, Burke and Harrison’s Tom Jones. But then I became wrapped up in these, Thomas Hardy films; the 2008 The Duchess (from Amanda Foreman’s book); the wondrous 1975-77 mini-series Poldark (I’ve fallen in love with Robin Ellis); not to omit reviews of Turn of the Screws; and Golden Bowls; 48 years of Jane Eyre, and S&S and Miss Austen Regrets and Young Victoria .
I began to feel awful silly — all this preparation or prologue for what after all would be a (I hoped) a fun blog, not too long or overwritten. Well, here it is, another night in many many where I can’t read and am too tired even to watch a film attentively, and so let me at last turn to this delightful tribute.
My theme is while this new Tom Jones is much indebted to Tony Richardson’s, it is also much superior. I’m led to be so upfront and strong on this point because I’ve learned there is almost nothing serious written about it, and the one article I came across (Martin Battestin) sneers at it because (forsooth) it’s a Telly one, is a mini-series, and is at once less “robust” (a telling word) and more faithful (this is a bad thing in some reverse snobbery circles of late). To the contrary, this film offers a reading and insight into Fielding’s book that to some extent undercuts the complacency theses and shows how his art carries different kinds of depths.
The new film certainly imitates the earlier one. Max Beesley as Tom acts out the part in much the way Finney did, for example, and the new film similarly insists on the artifice of the story and the medium. We have an imitation of the famous hunt sequence too. Samantha Morton is dressed to recall Susannah York. Perhaps I should say alludes to the earlier film, for the idea is intertextuality, with continual comparisons invited.
Mr Allworthy (Benjamin Whitlow’s hands are entwined in the baby’s and the opening sequences show him again and again fondling, attached to, bringing up the child, for all the world mothering it (this regendered dimension is nowhere in Richardson’s film)
As with Andrew Davies’s redo of the famous David Lean Dr Zhivago (with an non-English relatively unknown director who did art films like this one), it’s better than Richardson’s in a number of ways (and not just from length). Richardson’s is discussed as ever so jolly, and we get a reinforcement of the benevolism attributed to Fielding; in fact his book is dark, a satire on humanity is going on that is at moments Swiftian. The frenetic madness of the depictions get this across — and this is true to the book’s frenetic caricatures. The people are genuinely violent, proud, irritable, resentful in a careening way. I’ve never seen this pulled out of the art of Tom Jones before.
Daringly, we have a continual narrator coming in, reinforcing the brilliance of the plot-pattern and how it’s all put together. John Sessions is Fielding and we get drawings interspersed with scenes. This is not just frames, intertitles, with a voice-over unattahed to anyone.
John Sessions as Fielding is made to appear each time one set of characters (set A say) enters the scene and a set (set B) leaves. We watch one set go one way (A) and another the way (B); or they go in the same direction (C); or they pass one another by just missing one another (D). The characters are conceived of as groups in parallel (all on horses) or contrast (this one staying put in London here, say E, or there, F, and G, another place). And then we get interludes, as when in the inn two men put on a puppet show, and Patridge (Ron Cook) makes remarks, and during this scene more than one group collides (so to speak) with one another. Sessions as Fielding then appears, or is standing there, makes a remark, as if directing traffic, and then gets off stage and we are with the new set of characters. The effect is a visualization of the multiplot Fielding created which has been so admired and written about several times astutely.
He keeps count of where we are and who is going where:
He begins to function as a sign not only for new characters and changes in direction, but changes in mood and tone from scene to scene. When he turns up, we know we are going into a new phase:
Another is the more in-depth characterization of the characters surrounding Tom. Sophie is made to have a real character; for example, and at the close of the film, she does not just melt into Tom’s arms; they have a conversation where she tells him time must go by before she can forgive him. Time goes pretty swift, for the next scene seems to be about 8 years later since Tom and she have a little Tom (looks around 6) and Sophie (say 3). The actors are also has more superior than those in the surrounding roles. I find this true of BBC and other English mini-series. There seems to be so many more secondary great actors supported by the system than the US cut-throat profit one.
Another element which goes along with this is the real new feminism of the film. Something Fielding leaves room for but does not develop himself. We are shown how vulnerable these women are, particularly Samantha Morton, who Clarissa-like, is seriously threatened with a coerced marriage, with rape, and genuinely terrified by her father who rages against her mother in such a way that we see this man made the mother’s life a misery, nay probably raped her as part of his right:
The production follows Fielding in not allowing sex to be a vexed difficult area personally for Tom at least — and later his friend with Nancy Miller. This is a way of trivializing what is central to women’s issues but the production does not follow Tom in marginalizing women in their reactions to their lives, and boy are they pro-active.
They are “put back” into narratives Fielding has elided over with all their force and this is part of what makes this film so superior to the 1966 production (which reminds me at times of the 1960s Moll Flanders with Kim Novak).
It’s really touching when Western throws Mrs Honour out and we see her desperate, homeless, terrified:
Very touching. When we see Sophie dragged away and Honor comes out and looks so desolate and turns around and the door is shut, how we feel for her. It’s the way she holds her hands, her hair done up in ties. When Squire Western turns her out, she has no where to go. We see her knock on closed doors; she has her hands hanging down in a thin dress, and her hair in those tight curlers. This kind of sympathy is not in Fielding. So one can see how the film is a recreation from a modern standpoint of the original book.
The actress playing Jenny Jones (Camille Corduri) contributes to the strong real women of the film in her scenes with Mr Allworthy.
Burke, Huseyin and Harrizon make Mrs Bridget Allworthy genuinely affectionate towards Tom; we see her grieve over having to leave him, and on her death bed advise him gently (worriedly) to be prudent. She is presented as fooled by a cruel Blifil who ignores, humiliates and tries to exploit her. Happily he falls off a cliff while reading a book on how to siphon off her money. Late in the movie we get a flashback showing her when young and in love with the curate who was Tom’s father (played by Beesley again):
There is feminism in the book — of a sort. It does not require reading against the grain as much as I expected — though Lord Fellaston’s idea he is raping Sophia for her own good appears to be understood, and rape is treated as something of a joke or usually something women fake happened. No understanding or empathy which will help women much, rather simply an appreciation of their lack of power and what this means for good women — first and foremost Fielding is a satirist and so takes a harsh view of humanity altogether — and it’s not that far from Swift.
The film-makers built on this and woven memories of, in effect allusions to the perspectives in Clarissa on women and brutality. They added the social satire of women’s antagonism. The scene where Tom saves Molly from the other women though is not accented against women or about Molly looking particularly naked, but Tom’s fondness for her:
There (by contrast, and making us like Tom) is also much brutality between men, and thus the non-violence kindliness of Ron Cook as Partridge is deeply appealing. The film speaks to our world today in the corruption, hypocrisy, and snobbery of people Tom meets: the film has him meet so many, which is part of the point, life’s journey you know. And Sessions as narrator by a little less than mid-way begins to be traffic director, explainer (in lieu of voice-voice, a bold use of the narrator coming in), ironist.
The film also makes an astute use of letters and documents. The producer is someone who was involved in the 1991 Clarissa which used film epistolary scenes too. Characters are seen writing them, sending them, juxtaposed scenes of characters using them to try to reach one another bring the characters and events together. Tom’s false letter asking Lady Bellaston to marry him is made much of visually. We get voice-over cleverly done as the characters work to reunite at the close of the film, especially Samantha Morton as Sophia — this actress is effective in whatever part she plays and here does remind me of Clarissa reaching out.
The movie communicates a lot through silences and sheer faces. The long early sequences of Sophia and Tom falling in love are done through gesture and action.
James D’Arcy is powerful as the mean Blifil again and again; early in the film it’s his triumph at Sophie after she agrees to see him and she looks and we see in her eyes awareness of how nasty he is. She had decided to give him a chance but looking into his face she knows better. We know how miserable he’d make her.
They didn’t want to add too many words to Fielding and Fielding did not go down to this level. His one comment shows he will be as his father was to Bridget: I shall soon have quite enough of your company madame echoes his father’s phrase after marriage.
Blifil pretends Mr Allworthy is throwing Tom out over love for Sophie; he hides the lies he told Mr Allworthy — all the while we see the savagery of Western and Sophie’s real misery. Done very well and we feel it. No narrator intervening here. Bell of church rings at crucial moments of drama. Then thunder as Blifil says banish you from his sight forever.
Dark colors, bleak landscape, poverty with Black George in his wagon completes this desolating moment.
And then archetypal rain — on Mr Allworthy grieving at altar for his loss of Tom, Sophie grieving at window, on Tom leaving
Once again Lindsay Duncan is the sex-crazed unscrupulous vengeful villainous — perhaps I should not say once again, perhaps this was the first time she did this. She makes her character luxurious, worldly and tough and more sensual than sexual:
This is not part of the feminist thread of the film, though certainly it shows a strong woman.
When young I would pass quickly over the Lady Bellaston parts of the novel. They disquieted me. Tom allows himself to be a male concubine; the woman induces Lord Fellamar to rape another women. Well this film reinforces these uses of sex with no trouble by the powerful acting of Lindsay Duncan. This is one of many roles I’ve seen her forceful in in these costume dramas (another was recently in Lost in Austen as Lady Catherine de Bourgh).
The film does stay true to 18th century films in that what is delved is sexuality and gender much more than family life — we are not interested in inward family life and its pathologies, but family members as representatives of sordid ruthless aggrandizement and inhumanity at large.
I’ve left out some performances. Brian Blessed gets the right tone of madness and half-crazed bullying.
Thwackum, Square (especially) and Supple are more sheer comic figures than memories of Fielding’s serious concern with hypocritical and pernicious uses of religion, fanaticism, false learning, sycophancy. But they are there.
As a scholar I’ve done reception studies.and know how hard it is to counter an original reception. I mentioned Andrew Davies’s films and have been writing about these. He is a bold person who several times now has deliberately chosen a film that was super-praised originally, that he thinks is not that good, and done a successful new one, on a couple of occasions really batted the older one off the court. In the case of the 1979 P&P I think unfairly; not only is Judy Parfitt’s performance exquisitely good (as a straight interpretation of Austen’s character the subtlest and most persuasive), but so too Elizabeth Garvey. The script is superb, the outlook feminist — the movie includes a sympathetic rereading and presentation of Mary Bennet and Anne de Bourgh. In the case of Dr Zhivago and Room with a View, Davies has done as well if not erased the previous at all; he gave an interesting interview on his and Campiotti (the Italian director) and Anne Pivcevic (the producer): they couldn’t get an English director to take it on; they couldn’t get one to say over lunch what were the faults and flaws of the earlier film. Criticize David Lean? He has friends too. Films can be of their times. I’d say Lean’s Zhivago is one, turning the book into an anti-communist event (in the film too). Richardson’s Tom Jones is I think another.
I wrote (I know) provocatively on my blog comparing Richardson’s TJ and Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, and my argument was BL is still thoroughly persuasive on its own terms, this told TJ not.
I have a copy of and have read Battestin’s essay praising Richardson’s film; it was that one I was referring to when I said the way the film was regarded was from the benevolist standpoint; I didn’t say that Battestin was also an original proponent of this view. As I wrote I don’t see Tom Jones this way; in a nutshell, I place the book against the scrim of all Fielding’s work (which includes dark satire indeed, and his non-fiction essays).
One of the liberating aspects of the Net is that one can say on a blog what might not get through to a print publication. Tony Richardson told the same joke over and over: see how sweet, good, innocent, chivalrous, generous is Tom even though he is in bed with this and that and the other women. It’s that all these women want him so; they are the aggressor again and again. Then he is extricated by highjinks and we are to laugh again as he escapes — until near the end he is almost hung. I tired of it, over and over. Endless exposure of women’s breasts was part of the treat. Not much for Susannah York to do but look loving and accepting, and the sexy women to slither and slide and look CHFM.
This doesn’t deny the sterling qualities of Richardson’s film. It comes down to naturalistic (highly) camera work, the scenes not being puffed up and made pompous, but left to be there quietly. For lack of a better term I’d say it’s anti-hierarchical, anti-artifice. Much more is on location than the 97 film, many more extras hired. The close-ups to the faces pick up depths of feeling close and the famous eating scene must’ve startled. And there is an eating scene leading to sex (between Tom and Jenny Jones) in this film too. Filmically brilliant, delivering what it has to say through images.
The movie can develop at length ideas from the 66 film too: we again have a magnificent hunt, no long tracking shots in quite the same angle (so they are not imitated), but much more intimacy with animals and Tom’s hurt (and a scene with Sophia) again thorough — few words and much gesture, eye contact, pantomime.
I was happy when the film ended happily for not only Tom, Sophia, Mr Allworthy and the two children (a little Tom and Sophia) but the comic coupling of Partridge and Honor too — it reminded me of Tamino and Tamina and Pamino and Pamina in The Magic Flute. It’s a sentimental departure from the book where Honor ends up staying in London with Lady Bellaston and Sophia marries Partridge off to Molly (to keep Tom away?)
I just had so many favorite moments in the film I can’t put all of them in.
I think the enjoyment, pleasure and real instruction the film gives is the proof the film-makers lived up to their desire to recreate Mr Fielding’s work in a new medium.