Saturday, April 29, 2023

Tom Jones, on PBS

His name should ring a bell and not for singing the theme song to Thunderball. Unfortunately, a lot of English majors can graduate without reading Fielding these days and the 1963 adaptation has steadily lost its critical cachet since winning the Best Picture Oscar. Frankly, the story of the roguish foundling will probably be new to a lot of viewers, but they might not necessarily be watching PBS’s Masterpiece. However, older fans of costume dramas will be interested to see how Gwyneth Hughes’ four-part adaption departs from the novel and Albert Finney film when Tom Jones premieres tomorrow on PBS.

Squire Allworthy was a decent widower, who raised Tom Jones as his own, when he discovered the foundling mysteriously left in his chambers. Frankly, he might be a little too upright, but Jones always appreciated his kindness. In contrast, Jones’ legitimate cousin, William Blifil, and the heir to the estate always hated him, with visceral intensity. That is partly is so determined to be matched with Sophia Western, with whom Jones is clearly smitten. It is quite mutual, but Squire Western is not about to marry her off to a man of Jones’ dubious lineage.

In this adaptation, Miss Sophie is the Squire’s granddaughter. Her father recently passed away on the family’s Jamaican plantation and her mother, a slave, died in childbirth. That was not in the original Fielding. Sophie Wilde (who previously played another Sophie namesake in
The Portable Door) is one of the brightest, most watchable members of this ensemble, but her character’s acutely tragic backstory conflicts with Fielding’s original bawdy mock-epic tone, which Hughes still tries to preserve.

Hughes also largely dispenses with the ironic narrator, which was the whole point of Fielding’s novel (and a major reason why post-structuralist literary critics are drawn to Eighteenth Century literature). There are brief voice-overs, recorded by Wilde, at the start and close of each episode, presumably conceived as a means for Sophie Western to “reclaim the narrative,” but they have little wit.

However, Jones still shares a lusty meal with the infamous “Mrs. Waters.” In fact, Susannah Fielding (whose name is almost too perfect for a new
Tom Jones production) is one of the most entertaining things the new mini-series has to offer. Likewise, Hannah Waddington (often resembling Maleficent) is spectacularly vampish, in a Dangerous Liaisons kind of way, as scheming Lady Bellaston. While Solly McLeod is convincingly naïve and lunkish as the title character, his amiable demeanor never really connects on an emotional level, which makes all the fuss surrounding him hard to buy into. Yet, he makes more impression than James Wilbraham’s Blifil, who is more of a wallflower than a sinister nemesis.

Like its clueless protagonist, the new
Tom Jones is a consistently chipper production. It is a bit racier than typical Masterpiece productions, but all the strategic body parts remain covered. Frankly, it would have benefited from a bit more edge, notwithstanding the efforts of Waddington and [Susannah] Fielding. Diverting but not recommended with any urgency, Tom Jones starts airing tomorrow night (4/30) on PBS.