Thursday, March 8, 2018

The Criterion Collection: Tom Jones Blu-ray Review

Reviewed by Sean Ferguson
In the early 1960s, at the height of the British New Wave, director Tony Richardson and playwright John Osborne set out for more fanciful territory than the gritty realism of the movement they’d helped establish. Tom Jones brings a theatrical flair to Henry Fielding’s canonical eighteenth-century novel, boisterously chronicling the misadventures of the foundling of the title (Albert Finney, in a career-defining performance), whose easy charm seems to lead him astray at every turn from his beloved, the wellborn Sophie Western (Susannah York). This spirited picaresque, evocatively shot in England’s rambling countryside and featuring an extraordinary ensemble cast, went on to become a worldwide sensation, winning the Oscar for best picture on the way to securing its status as a classic of irreverent wit and playful cinematic expression.
Film (3 out of 5 stars)
Released in 1963, Tom Jones was a major hit, both critically and at the box office. This adaption of Henry Fielding's novel The History of Tom Jones benefited hugely for being released at the right time. If it had been released probably at any other time, it would not have have been as successful as it was. When you consider that the Best Picture of the previous year was Lawrence of Arabia, a David Lean old school classic with the epic but restrained British studio that was filmed in a traditional style, you can see why Tom Jones made such an impact.

The story of a bastard child who grows up to be an incorrigible rascal let director Tony Richardson free reign to gleefully break all of the usual film traditions. Characters frequently break the fourth wall (which was a fairly new conceit), the camera moves all over the place, scenes of sex and innuendo are more blatant and risque, and the entire movie seems to have been filmed with all of the cast having a great time. (Some of them like Hugh Griffith were as he was usually drunk, but others like star Albert Finney found making the film less fun). The film itself offers a variety of styles as it begins as a silent movie complete with title cards and accelerated speed, then it becomes a visceral hand held movie during a thrilling hunt on horseback, and then a traditional period piece that looks right but it's subverted by a irreverent script and a game cast who give it a modern sensibility.

The story itself is pretty thin and slightly repetitive as we see Tom go from getting himself in trouble with the ladies over and over. His adoptive father Squire Allworthy George Devine) tries to keep Tom on the straight path but Tom is irrepressible. The Squire's nephew Blifil (David Warner) is a sniveling weasel who wants to see Tom get kicked out of the house and is happy to help in any way. In fact, thanks to him, Tom is forced to venture out on his own to make his way to London, against his wishes as he'd prefer to stay to be with his neighbor's daughter Sophie (Susannah York), but her father Squire Western (Hugh Griffith) won't allow it. The rest of the movie is focused on whether or not Tom can rise above his station to marry Sophie and whether or not Sophie will take him despite all of his womanizing. 

While I can appreciate the zany style that must have been electrifying to audiences of the time who were more used to stolid and restrained movie, I think Tom Jones is a product of its time. How this movie was nominated for ten Academy Awards and won four of them including Best Picture is beyond me. Especially considering that it had some considerable competition including How the West Was Won for Best Picture, which in my mind is a more worthy choice. In any case, the film struck a chord with the audiences and critics back then and while I don't share that sentiment, I can see why. The cast is great across the board, the film is fun and irreverent, and audiences and culture itself was about to be up-heaved across the board. With Beatlemania sweeping the world and the youth of the world about to exercise their voices and freedoms, this movie couldn't have been released at a better time. Sometimes timing is everything.
Video (4 1/2 out of 5 stars)
Criterion has done a great job restoring this film and as usual they went all out to deliver the best possible picture. As they state this is derived from a "New 4K digital restorations of the original theatrical version of the film and the 1989 director's cut, both supervised by director of photography Walter Lassally." Both versions of the film look identical, with the only difference between them is the nine minutes that have been removed to make the director's cut. This is probably the best we are going to see this film on Blu-ray as the colors are distinct and the detail is fairly good. The look of the film is intentionally soft as Walter Lassally tells us in the extras, as he deliberately put a special cloth in front of the camera for all but one scene in the movie. Black levels are dark but not as inky black as I'd have preferred, but overall this is a fantastic restoration.   
Audio (3 1/2 out of 5 stars)
This PCM mono track is nothing special but it does the job well with a clean sounding mix that offers clear dialogue and a nice blend of music and the rare sound effects. This is probably the best we can expect for this film.
Extras (3 out of 5 stars)
I always love the extras that Criterion offers and once again they've done a nice job getting some old and new ones. I do wish more had been added but these are good ones. The extras are split across the two discs.

The Director's Cut:-
A new 25 minute conversation between the film's cinematographer Walter Lassally and critic Peter Cowie that includes excerpts from an earlier interview with Lassally combined with a recent one. 
There is an additional 22 minute interview with film scholar Duncan Petrie on Tom Jones' impact on British films as well as a new 10 minute interview with the Robert Lambert, the editor of the Director's cut who talks about how that came about. 

The Theatrical Cut:
Short clip from The Dick Cavett Show from 1982 featuring Albert Finney who talks about Tom Jones.  There is also a 10 minute interview with Vanessa Redgrave who had been married to director Tony Richardson from 1962 to 1967. There is short and illustrated archival audio interview with composer John Addison on his Oscar-winning score for the film. And last but not least, there is also a liner notes booklet included with an essay on the film by scholar Neil Sinyard.
Summary (3 1/2 out of 5 stars)
While I don't think Tom Jones merited a Best Picture win (an opinion that the film's director Tony Richardson shared), I can see why people appreciated it. It's zany and and fun and it did break the stodgy status quo with it's anything goes approach. Criterion has done a fantastic job restoring this film so it has the best possible picture and sound quality. The extras are good but more would have been nice, especially if they could have gotten a recent interview with star Albert Finney. If you love Tom Jones, then this is the edition you want to pick up. Criterion has done an excellent job as always!

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