Sunday, January 11, 2009

Film Ignorance #21: Tom Jones

Film: Tom Jones
Rating: A Good Movie
Director: Tony Richardson
Stars: Albert Finney, Susannah York, Hugh Griffith
Year: 1963
Reason for Ignorance: Never Heard of it

Ignorance Rating*: Pending
“We are all as God made us and many of us much worse.

I would love to say that Tom Jones is a charming little movie. And it is certainly charming. But its 2 hr+ runtime, its unprecedented (for a British film) production budget, its status as an important literary adaptation, and its sweeping social critique make it a big film. And if I did find it quite charming, I also found it to drag frequently.

The film, like the novel it was based on, is a picaresque, and as such is more than a little uneven. It follows the diverse adventures and sexual conquests of the foundling Tom Jones (Albert Finney) as he journeys from his country home to London. And many, many of these vignettes are very funny, starting with the first of them, which is a silent sequence, complete with title-cards, in which Squire Western (Griffith) finds a baby in his bed and decides to adopt him. As a grown man, Tom dallys with the gamekeeper's daughter and romances the neighboring squire's heiress, and eventually, through some complicated maneuvering by his evil stepbrother, is driven away from home.

This is the wrong Tom Jones

As I said before, the film is full of charming moments. 18th century novels were frequently metafictional, and this film carries on that tradition - the narrator, and Tom himself, frequently address the audience directly. One of Tom's ladyfriends has a large and obviously fake mole; it's no surprise that it ends up on different sides of her face in different scenes. And the film is also full of slapstick moments, sped-up, Chaplin style chase sequences, and tons of wordplay. And its finale, in which all of Tom's allies, enemies, and paramours are thrown together in London and reveal some (damn predictable) plot twists, wraps the film up in an appropriately cheery and cheeky manner.

But along the way, I was frequently bored. Sure Finney is great - this is by far the earliest Finney movie I've seen, and although I could never recognize the Finney of Miller's Crossing or The Bourne Ultimatum, his distinctive voice seems not to have changed over the years. But there are too many vignettes, too many encounters with the ladies, and too many plot elements swirling about. What Richardson should have done is cut the film's running time (which he did in its 1989 rerelease, which I was unable to acquire), further emphasize the meta-moments, and deliver a less weighty but considerably more fun experience. It probably wouldn't have won a whole slew of Academy Awards, but it sure would be easier to sit through.

(Note: if the ideal version Tom Jones that I sketched out appeals to you, Michael Winterbottom made it a couple of years ago. It's called Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story, and it's roughly 10 times funnier than Tom Jones)

*The "Ignorance Rating" is the percentage of people who voted "Yes" on the poll for this film. If ten people vote in the poll, and 5 of them have seen the movie, I give it an ignorance rating of 50. It's just a ballpark way for me to know how egregious my ignorance was in this case.


MovieMan0283 said...

I enjoyed this film a lot as it combined the "big" picture with lots of subversive, New Wave-esque touches (as such I didn't find it boring). I also like that you pointed out the parallel between the film's style and the original text's - Tom Jones may have subverted contemporary expectations of how the period film was supposed to look and behave (a subversion largely executed in post-production, when Richardson feared the material was too ponderous) but it did not necessarily subvert its literary source so much as confirm its intent.

My own thoughts are here:

S. Johansson said...

Honestly, I thought that the cost of tom jones tickets was a little too much this year. Please join me in not going to the show... Yeah right, I'd pay whatever it took to go to the show.

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A classic not just of literary adaptation, but of the last truly adventurous era in British and European filmmaking.


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