This week’s Criterion Channel selection is Tony Richardson’s Tom Jones, a 1963 adventure-comedy set in 1700s England and executed in the style of early 1900s swashbuckler films. Whew! Born out of wedlock, the titular character (Albert Finney) grows into a charming young man and falls in love with the upper-class Sophie Western (Susannah York), whom he cannot marry because he is not of royal descent. Yup, it’s the standard formula for a period piece romance!
Among Best Picture completionists, Tom Jones is slightly infamous for being one of the worst winners besides Crash (but will inevitably be dethroned if Bohemian Rhapsody or Green Book prevail this year). The most memorable aspect is Finney’s performance, which is decisively the grounds for its selection — the five-time Oscar nominee tragically passed away on February 7th at age 82. Though he’s arguably most known for his portrayal of the older version of Ed Bloom (Ewan McGregor) in Tim Burton’s Big Fish, his performance as the titular Tom Jones defined his storied career.
Finney’s contributions to the somewhat one-note character carry the film, injecting a necessary charisma and whimsy into the dryness of the aristocratic time period and setting. His swashbuckling dueling brings silent film actor/pioneer Douglas Fairbanks and Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon to mind, and his way with women was so magnetic that he inspired the stage name of pop singer Tom Jones. In perhaps the most influential scene, Tom and a woman named Mrs. Waters (Joyce Redman) sit across from each other and feast erotically. With direct eye contact, the two tear chicken off the bone with their teeth, slurp up oysters, and sink into pears, juice dribbling down their chins, It’s a long, hypnotizing game of lust oozing with carnal pleasure — in fact, it’s so entrancing that we momentarily forget that Tom is supposedly still in love with Sophie..
Indeed, the madcap plot is a bit hard to follow, especially without the help of subtitles. (Quick tangent: While it’s understandable that the Criterion Channel probably doesn’t have the most luxurious budget, every streaming platform should include a subtitles option for the deaf and hard of hearing. Film must be accessible to everyone.) The narrator attempts to explain certain bits using prose taken directly from Henry Fielding’s source novel, a common technique used in film adaptations of books, but it feels more muddled than informative. The overly silly musical score also functions as an unnecessary prompt, punctuating jokes with exclamation points rather than periods, effectively hitting the audience over the head screaming, “This is funny! This part is supposed to be FUNNY! HAHA! ARE YOU LAUGHING?!”
Although Tom Jones may pale in comparison to Criteron’s stellar previous picks of Mikey and Nicky and Chungking Express, it does serve as a welcome, heartfelt tribute to Finney. In addition to the film itself, Criterion is also streaming an hour long interview with Finney from The Dick Cavett Show, as well as his kitchen sink drama, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning.