When Tony Richardson made “Tom Jones” in 1963, he revolutionised the approach that cinema took to classic literature by, quite simply, not treating it as classic literature. Given that his subsequent career nose-dived, with a couple of exceptions, its not surprising that he eventually ran for cover and returned to the source of his biggest hit. Sadly, “Joseph Andrews” has none of the freshness or wit of the earlier film, the absence of screenwriter John Osborne being a key factor, and the result is a bizarre mixture of ‘Carry On” humour and faux-historical realism.
The original novel is itself a strange beast and doesn’t lend itself to adaptation, being far more a series of ironic observations on life and literature than a picaresque odyssey. The film tries to turn it into “Tom Jones 2″ by treating the hero, Joseph Andrews, as an innocent beset by a variety of rampant females. On its own terms, this might work if the writing were up to par but it isn’t and its left to the cast to salvage what they can from the mess. Ann-Margret comes across best as Lady Booby because she has enough charm and humour to create a character from nothing and there are nice moments from Beryl Reid as her malaprop maid and John Gielgud as a quack doctor.
But a host of other good actors turn up in bits and have nothing to do - Peggy Ashcroft for example - and others, notably Michael Hordern, are just humiliated. Theoretically, Hordern is perfect casting for Parson Adams but not the conception of the character as a disaster-prone fool that is offered here and the scene where he has to remove his trousers and flash his arse is one of the great embarrassments of seventies cinema.
It all looks nice enough, thanks to David Watkin, and John Addison’s music offers some momentum but the film doesn’t have any dramatic tension and just drifts along as if Richardson doesn’t know what he’s doing. Every time he’s in trouble, he forces in a scene of soft-focus nudity or badly timed slapstick and the result is tedious at best.
I watched this on BBC4 as part of their excellent 18th Century season which has offered some good documentaries and the excellent 1997 TV adaptation of “Tom Jones”.