Tony Richardson, John Osborne, and Albert Finney are three talented young men who are known more for their anger than their sense of humor. But they have proved they can, be funny, unmistakably and delightfully funny, in Tom Jones.
Richardson, the director, made his name with such films as Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and A Taste of Honey. Osborne, England's most publicized angry young man, wrote stage plays such as Look Back in Anger and The Entertainer before doing this screenplay. And Finny, whose work on the West End has earned him the title of successor to Oliver--a position abdicated by Elizabeth Taylor's future husband-has usually appeared as an unhappy, brooding young man.
Nobody, including the audience, broods in Tom Jones. It is a wild, ridiculous, engaging film and seems sure to become a minor classic. The signs are clear--already people talk reverently of the Chicken-Eating Scene, or the Hunt Scene, or the Bedroom Scene in the Inn. Characters are fondly committed to memory: Finney as Tom, Hugh Griffith as Squire Western, Joyce Redman as Mrs. Waters. Tom Jones is an enthusiastic movie, and its enthusiasm is infectious. Sour souls who claim it is overrated have been shouted down.
The success of the film is remarkable, for in many ways Tom Jones appears an almost impossible movie to make. The hero is an amoral bastard who must be made likeable; Squire Western is a slob who must not seem repulsive; the squire are whores, yet cannot appear sordid; the heroine is sexy, but her virtue must not seem ridiculous.
To accomplish all this, the movie adopts from the outset an air of unreality. It begins as a silent movie, and uses throughout a collection of cinematic tricks--characters addressing the camera, stopped action ,sar-castic narration--to preserve this sense of unreality, in which absurdities are not only acceptable, but common place.
Yet Tom Jones is more than a composite of tricks. It is skillfully acted, particularly by Finney. Appearing in nearly every scene, he laughs and romps with engaging abandon, setting the tone for everyone else in the film. Finney acts with every fiber of his face, every muscle of his body: viewers who have watched him waltz and stumble into the marshes to get a flower for sophie are not likely to forget his performance.
The direction is no less remarkable. There are some very unfunny scenes is Tom Jones, and it is a tribute to Richardson that the brutality of the hunt, and the squalor of the London Prison, make an impression on the audience without destroying the total effect of the film.
Actually, Tom Jones gets away with nearly everything. Some will find that is exuberance is forced, and its ribaldry self-conscious, but for the most part it is a crasing success. Those burdened with the girm realities of reading period should find it a welcome relief.