Sunday 14 September 2008

Tom Jones (1963)

Squire Allworthy returns home to find a baby left in his bed, a baby who he'll bring up as his own son and call Tom Jones. It's bizarre to watch these opening scenes, made in colour but in the style of an old silent slapstick short, but a few of the major names here were taking a break from movies about angry young men. Director Tony Richardson had just made The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner. Star Albert Finney was coming off Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. Writer John Osborne had written the original play of Look Back in Anger, that gave the movement its name and Richardson had directed. Certain similarities between this and Finney's last role notwithstanding, this was a far cry from any of these other films.

It's an unashamedly riotous bawdy romp, sometimes uncomfortably so. It sets its tone early on with a pregnant young lady set upon by her female detractors in a graveyard after church, the combatants stooping as far as to pick up bones as weapons. It soon progresses to a debauched dinner where the lack of table manners mirrors the pronouncements by Squire Western. Then there's the hunt, which is a blood sport in more than just catching and killing a deer. Western spurs his horse cruelly and the hunt takes out horses, riders and geese who just happened to be in the way.

I always thought Tom Jones was a paeon to a more earthy time, but in this form at least it's at least partially a damnation of it. The word 'abuse' has a lot of meanings, but this is one of the best examples of it in the form of 'abuse of power'. Squire Western is the most obvious example, but he's far from the only one. How he can talk so fondly of his mare and hounds yet treat everyone including his animals so cruelly, I don't know, but then that's the point.. I love his line when told that his beloved daughter is in love: 'In love? Without my consent? I'll disinherit her!'

Those who have far more manners are no less cruel or twisted. David Warner is suitably slimy and devious as Mr Blifil, Squire Allworthy's nephew. Jones's tutors, Mr Thwackum and Mr Square are appropriately played as money hungry blusterers by always bloated Peter Bull and John Moffatt. Julian Glover is a memorably twisted army lieutenant in his film debut, long before Walter Donovan in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Above all is Hugh Griffith as Squire Western, but these are just the characters we have names for. The implication is that all the gentry have very skewed perspectives of what counts as decency, well beyond what could have been expected from class differences of the early to mid 18th century.

Tom Jones himself in comparison is a rogue and a rascal but he's a decent sort. He has his faults, from a modern day perspective, but he's a gentleman and a scholar for the era in which he exists. As a bastard, he's higher in moral standing than anyone else in the cast. After all the poor don't count and the rest of the gentry are no comparison. Even Sophie Western, the object of Tom's love, not that he has a problem dallying with any or all young ladies who cross his path, is nothing much to speak of. She may not be cruel but she's not much of anything else either. Susannah York does a good job with the part and looks suitably offended on frequent occasion.

There are two other worthies. Miss Western, Sophie's aunt, is played with gusto by Dame Edith Evans, known as the greatest female presence on the English stage in the twentieth century, here establishing herself with no little expectation as a film presence of note. She persuades a highwayman to leave her be just through pure upper class contempt and we have no problem believing it. She breezes through everything and everyone because whether she's right, wrong or somewhere in between, she knows with the certainty of breeding that she's absolutely right beyond any question. The other is Joan Greenwood as 'the notorious Lady Bellaston', who connives and plots with aplomb. She looks a little less than usual when her hair is up and she's burdened down with layers of makeup but she sounds as awesome as ever. Nobody yet has equalled her honey drenched voice, not in the history of film.

There are also others of note. Diane Cilento appears in full on hussy mode as one of Tom Jones's early conquests. She was Sean Connery's wife at this point. David Tomlinson is a fumbling lord. Jack MacGowran plays the highwayman, though this is a far quieter role than those he played in The Exorcist or The Fearless Vampire Killers. There's even Tony Richardson's sister-in-law Lynn Redgrave and mother-in-law Rachel Kempson, though surprisingly not his wife Vanessa Redgrave.

Whether this should have won four Oscars is open to question. It does play with the cinematic form, with a few instances of direct interaction with the audience, some decent use of freeze frame, in one instance stepped forward and even a sped up sequence a la Benny Hill, which may well have influenced Kubrick for the similarly sped up though extended scene in A Clockwork Orange. It's a rollicking ride, for sure, but I could name at least five films of the same year better: Charade, The Great Escape, The Haunting, Lilies of the Field and Lord of the Flies.

No comments: