Tom Jones (1963) Director: Tony Richardson
From its silent film-styled opening, to shakily handheld camerawork, and a delightfully silly tone between sped-up camera-work along with sudden unexpected pauses, Tony Richardson’s whimsical Tom Jones really is quite a marvelous film. This is perhaps the most unique Best Picture winner of all time. It offers a brilliant re-imagining of Henry Fielding’s 18th century picaresque satire Tom Jones, a book rife with narratological digressions and playful jabs at all things baroque. In order to capture a similar effect in the film, a fanciful tinkling harpsichord routinely cues the narrator to speak and all manner of experimental movie-making ensues. Like the novel, the film toys with all the rules of traditional film-making –in one moment, the fourth wall is broken; in the next, still photographs are used, and then we cut to an extended silent scene of characters dining while gazing lustfully at each other. All of this is a lively way of winking at the audience, as if to remind us that these misadventures are merely ridiculous, nothing more.
This was the film that made Albert Finney a star. He appears in the titular role of Tom Jones, once an abandoned infant who has been adopted by the kindly country gentleman, Squire Allworthy (George Devine). In time, Tom grows into a lusty bachelor, much of the film follows his various ribald pursuits, however all the while his heart truly belongs to a neighbor’s daughter, Sophie Western (Susannah York). Nevertheless, he mingles with loose ladies like Jenny/Mrs. Waters (Joyce Redman) and Lady Bellaston (Joan Greenwood). Tom winds up in several troubled situations, including a scene in which he is framed and nearly hanged, but he is saved at the last moment by a surprising turn of events. As it turns out, Tom is actually the child of Squire Allworthy’s sister, Bridget, thus making him the sole inheritor of Squire Allworthy’s estate. In the end, Tom and Sophie embrace and her father is suddenly delighted at the prospect of their betrothal and future offspring.
This oddball comedy, which arrived at the tail end of the “Angry Young Man” British New Wave movement, managed to win both the respect of critics and audiences alike. It came to represent the ethos of the era –a time of great transformation, bidding farewell to the austere and stifling generation that came before in the hopes of new life. It was the year of The Beatles, the “Swingin’ Sixties,” civil rights, color television, and counter-culture. Tom Jones rightly won a whole string of awards that year, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay, and Best Music Score. In my view, this entirely unique film is a seminal experiment, well-deserving of critical praise!