Alexander Larman has reviewed the Region 1 release of Tom Jones. The film is excellent, the disc adequate, but the opportunity here to watch great British actors hamming it up is a rare one.
Period films have the unfortunate reputation, thanks to Merchant Ivory and years of BBC costume drama, of being little more than dull tableaux, where characters whine about trivialities and, invariably Helena Bonham Carter/Emma Thompson/Kate Winslet will show up in a corset. However, there was a movement in the 1940s towards bodice-ripper period dramas, where there would be a guarantee of heaving bosoms, a moustache-twirling villain, and at least one scene where a lascivious man undoes his breeches while leering at his latest conquest.
That scene is, happily, present in Tom Jones, although the lascivious man is a bit-part player. The actual plot is a pretty good distillation of Fielding’s novel; Tom Jones (Finney) is a foundling, raised by the local squire, Mr Allworthy (George Devine). After a riotous upbringing, where Jones rebels against his tutor Reverend Thwackum (Bull), and falls in love with Sophia (York), the daughter of the drunken Squire Western (Griffith), circumstances conspire against him and he is expelled from Allworthy’s house. Picaresque adventures ensue.
Tony Richardson was, when the film was made, a moderately successful director of such gritty kitchen-sink films as The Entertainer and Don’t Look Back in Anger, and it was faintly surprising that he should collaborate with John Osborne to write the script of what would appear to be a complete change of tone and style for him. However, Richardson does his very best to throw in as many stylistic tricks as possible; therefore, scenes are played like silent films, characters speak directly to camera, scenes are sped up like a Keystone Kops comedy, scenes are frozen, and a witty narrator (Michaeal MacLiammoir) to point out character’s flaws. This all works wonderfully well in the film, and helps to keep it looking fresh even today, 40 years after it was made. The obvious comparison is with Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon; while it is perhaps not as resonant as Lyndon, with little interest in the beauty of 18th century England, it’s still a great period romp.
The performances are all good. Finney, in practically his first leading role, gives what might still be his best performance, conveying both the irresponsibility and basic decency of Jones. Susannah York is pretty and decorous as Sophia, but, as in the novel, she’s hardly as attractive as half of the other female characters. However, the acting honours are taken by Peter Bull and Hugh Griffith. Bull, a sadly underrated actor (he was also in Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove as the Russian ambassador), is wonderful in a part that essentially calls for a Hogarth illustration to come to life, and to declaim lines in a deep, mellifluous voice. Griffith, meanwhile, gives one of the most manically OTT performances ever put on screen, where seemingly every line he says is shouted, often while drunk. It’s hard to imagine a contemporary actor giving such a fearlessly overwrought performance; Brian Blessed came close in the recent BBC adaptation of the book, but lacked the essential insanity that Griffith brings to the role. The film is worth seeing for his performance alone.
Allegedly, Richardson undertook a restoration of this film shortly before his death. I say ‘allegedly’ because all that he in fact did was to remove 10 minutes of footage, on the grounds that it slowed down the action. However, this has now been restored for this DVD, making it a kind of un-director’s cut. The quality of the transfer varies dramatically. In some of the indoor scenes, the colours are quite amazingly clear for a non-anamorphic transfer, and there is little evidence of print damage. However, in some of the night-time outdoor scenes, there is some of the heaviest grain that I’ve ever seen on a disc, as well as a rather unpleasant greenish tinge to the print, which looked more like VHS than DVD. Thankfully, the transfer has more good in it than bad on balance, but this film could really do with a proper restoration by Robert Harris and co.
A mono track is provided, as you’d expect for a film of this age. It’s hard to really imagine that a 5.1 remix is called for, as the mono track does its job more than adequately, showcasing John Addison’s score well and keeping dialogue clear and crisp. The only criticism I would make is that sound levels occasionally become very muted, meaning that it’s necessary to raise the volume a fair bit to hear all of the dialogue. However, this is not a constant problem by any means.
An undistinguished trailer, and that’s it, without even a booklet of trivia. It’s actually quite hard to think of any extras that the film needs; a retrospective documentary might have been nice, given that Finney and York are still alive, but this isn’t the sort of film where there’s some sort of great background behind its production. Having said that, I would kill to see some of the outtakes if they involved Griffith going even more beserk than on screen; one can but hope…
It’s one of the best British costume dramas ever made, it’s Tony Richardson’s best film and it showcases a great cast of British actors, from David Warner to Edith Evans. The disc is competent but undistinguised, although it does gain points for being the first complete version of the film released since the early 1980s. Highly recommended.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
Continue the conversation over on The Digital Fix Forum