Joseph Andrews Review

Joseph Andrews (Peter Firth) is a young man who is being educated by Parson Adams (Michael Hordern). Joseph catches the eye of Lady Booby (Ann-Margret), who employs him as her footman. Especially after the death of her husband, she tries to seduce him, but his heart is with a foundling country girl, Fanny Goodwill (Natalie Ogle).

After The Charge of the Light Brigade, Tony Richardson's career faltered, at least commercially. He followed it with two films in one year, adaptations of Nabokov (Laughter in the Dark, recipient of a MPAA X rating in its day) and Shakespeare (a version of Hamlet with Nicol Williamson as the Dane and Marianne Faithfull as Ophelia), before going Down Under with Mick Jagger in the title role of Ned Kelly. I haven't seen any of those, nor have I sat through Dead Cert, and I won't discount the possibility that one or more of them might be more interesting than their reputation would suggest, as I found with Mademoiselle. The only one I have seen is A Delicate Balance, an adaptation of Edward Albee's play for the American Film Theatre. I found it extremely tedious, though my colleague Noel Megahey thinks differently.

So, we come to 1977, and maybe there was an element of running for cover with Joseph Andrews. Considering that Richardson's biggest hit had been Tom Jones fourteen years earlier, Richardson returned to another novel by Henry Fielding. Adapted by Don't Look Now scriptwriters Allan Scott and Chris Bryant from a screenstory by Richardson, Joseph Andrews is played all out as bawdy farce, and it plays like an eighteen-century Carry On film with ruder jokes.. Considering that the famous eating scene in the earlier film between Albert Finney and Joyce Redman was considered the ultimate in screen sexiness (Redman's suggestive oyster-slurping being a little too much for the censors of the day), Joseph Andrews shows how far screen permissiveness had gone. In an early scene we see a village game where Joseph has to climb up a pole to retrieve a very phallic vegetable from between the legs of a female straw effigy, which is open-mouthed in the manner of a blow-up sex doll. And the Carry Ons did not go so far as to have a plot hinging on the possibility of inadvertent incest. (Character names like Lady Booby and Fanny Goodwill are Fielding's responsibility though.)

Peter Firth was a former child actor (I'm of an age to remember him in the BBC show Here Come The Double Deckers!), and he was Alan Strang in the original stage production of Peter Shaffer's Equus, a role he reprised in the 1977 film version. Here he's fresh-faced, still with all his blond hair, and undeniably pretty but very bland. You can see why he didn't really take as the romantic lead he was being touted as, and he moved into character parts. Two years later he was Angel Clare to Nastassja Kinski's Tess and another romantic lead as a Russian sailor in Letter to Brezhnev, and after that an unsubtly-named philanderer called Dick in The Pleasure Principle. Acting honours go to Ann-Margret, top-billed and Golden Globe nominated as Lady Booby. Behind them are a very solid phalanx of British acting talent, who make the film watchable if never very funny. In her debut film as Fanny, Natalie Ogle looks quite out of her depth. That's Jim Dale singing the song that plays over the opening credits.

Technically the film is good, seemingly attractively lit by David Watkin. (Though the DVD transfer doesn't do his work justice – see below.) But ultimately it's a film that mistakes frantic pacing for big laughs, a combination that often doesn't work and doesn't here. Some brief but graphic moments of violence seem completely out of place. Joseph Andrews is mildly diverting in places but more often tedious.


Joseph Andrews is released by Optimum on a single-layered disc encoded for Region 2 only.

However, this is where the problems start. According to the BBFC Joseph Andrews had a running time of 103:55 on its cinema release. Yet this DVD release runs 94:41, too much of a discrepancy to be accounted for by PAL speed-up. The IMDB is not the most reliable of information sources, and it doesn't have any “alternative version” information about Joseph Andrews. But is does suggest that the film ran at 99 minutes in the USA (though Maltin's Film Guide says 103, so more or less the same as the cinema time) and logs a German TV print of 95, so maybe one or the other is the provenance of this version. However, this DVD transfer is soft, dully-coloured and shows all the combing, ghosting and other artefacts that I'd associate with a standards conversion. The transfer is anamorphic with thin matting lines top and bottom: the original ratio was 1.85:1.

The soundtrack is mono, and as that was how the film was heard in cinemas (Dolby Stereo was in its infancy in 1977) I have no complaints: it's clear and well-balanced. I'm beginning to sound like a stuck gramophone record by regretting Optimum's policy of not including subtitles on their English-language releases. The other two Richardson releases simultaneous with this one included a trailer: this disc has no extras at all.

I didn't find Joseph Andrews a particularly good film to begin with. Given that this DVD has what appears to be a standards-converted transfer and is a shortened version of the film, I can't recommend this disc.

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