“THE HISTORY OF TOM JONES, A FOUNDLING” (1997) Review

“THE HISTORY OF TOM JONES, A FOUNDLING” (1997) Review

The year 1963 saw the release of Tony Richardson’s Academy Award winning adaptation of Henry Fielding’s 1749 novel,“The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling”. Another thirty-four years passed before another adaptation of the novel appeared on the scene. It turned out to be the BBC’s five-episode miniseries that aired in 1997. 

“THE HISTORY OF TOM JONES, A FOUNDLING” is a comic tale about the life and adventures of an English foundling, who is discovered in the household of a warm-hearted landowner in Somerset named Squire Allworthy. The latter adopts the child and Tom Jones grows up to be a lusty, yet kindly youth; who falls in love with one Sophia Western, the only child of Allworthy’s neighbor, Squire Western. Tom is raised with the squire’s nephew, a falsely pious and manipulative young man named Mr. Blifil. Because the latter is Allworthy’s heir, Sophia’s father wishes her to marry Mr. Blifil, so that the Allworthy and Western estates can be joined as one. Unfortunately for Squire Western and Mr. Blifil, Sophia is in love with Tom. And unfortunately for the two young lovers, Tom is discredited by Mr. Blifil and his allies before being cast away by Squire Allworthy. In defiance of Squire Western’s wishes for her to marry Mr. Blifil, Sophia (accompanied by her maid, Honour) runs away from Somerset. Both Tom and Sophia encounter many adventures on the road to and in London, before they are finally reconciled.

Actually, there is a lot more to “THE HISTORY OF TOM JONES, A FOUNDLING”. But a detailed account of the plot would require a long essay and I am not in the mood. I have noticed that the 1997 miniseries has acquired a reputation for not only being a first-rate television production, but also being superior to the 1963 Oscar winning film. As a five-part miniseries, “THE HISTORY OF TOM JONES, A FOUNDLING” was able to adhere more closely to Fielding’s novel than the movie. But does this mean I believe that the miniseries is better than the movie? Hmmmm . . . I do not know if I can agree with that opinion.

I cannot deny that “THE HISTORY OF TOM JONES, A FOUNDLING” is a well made television production. Director Metin Hüseyin did an excellent job of utilizing a first-rate production crew for the miniseries. Cinders Forshaw’s photography was well done – especially in Somerset sequences featured in the miniseries’ first half. Roger Cann’s production designs captured mid-18th century England in great detail. And Rosalind Ebbutt’s costumes designs were not only exquisite, but nearly looked like exact replicas of the fashions of the 1740s. The look and style of “THE HISTORY OF TOM JONES, A FOUNDLING” seemed to recapture the chaos and color of mid-18th century England.

“THE HISTORY OF TOM JONES, A FOUNDLING” could also boast some first-rate performances. The miniseries featured solid performances from the likes of Christopher Fulford and Richard Ridings as Mr. Blifil’s allies, Mr. Square and Reverend Thwackum; Kathy Burke, who was very funny as Sophia’s maid, Honour; Celia Imrie as Tom’s London landlady, Mrs. Miller; Peter Capaldi as the lecherous Lord Fellamar; Tessa Peake-Jones as Squire Allworthy’s sister Bridget and Benjamin Whitrow as the squire. The episode also featured solid turns from the likes of Kelly Reilly, Camille Coduri, Matt Bardock, Roger Lloyd-Pack, and Sylvester McCoy. Max Beesley was solid as Tom Jones. He also had good chemistry with his leading lady, Samantha Morton, and did a good job in carrying the miniseries on his shoulders. However, I do feel that he lacked the charisma and magic of Albert Finney. And there were times in the miniseries’ last two episodes, when he seemed in danger of losing steam.

But there were some performances that I found outstanding. Brian Blessed was deliciously lusty and coarse as Squire Western, Allworthy’s neighbor and Sophia’s father. I really enjoyed his scenes with Frances de la Tour, who was marvelous as Sophia’s snobbish and controlling Aunt Western. Lindsay Duncan gave a subtle performance as the seductive Lady Bellaston. James D’Arcy was outstanding as Squire Allworthy’s nephew, the sniveling and manipulative Mr. Blifil. Ron Cook gave the funniest performance in the miniseries, as Tom’s loyal sidekick, Benjamin Partridge, who had earlier suffered a series of misfortunes over the young man’s birth. Samantha Morton gave a superb performance as Tom’s true love, Sophia Western. Morton seemed every inch the graceful and passionate Sophia, and at the same time, conveyed the strong similarities between the young woman and her volatile father. But the one performance I truly enjoyed was John Sessions’ portrayal of author Henry Fielding. I thought it was very clever to use Sessions in that manner as the miniseries’ narrator. And he was very entertaining.

The producers of the miniseries hired Simon Burke to adapt the novel for television. And I believe he did an excellent job. I cannot deny that the miniseries’ running time allowed him to include scenes from the novel. Thanks to Burke’s script and Hüseyin’s direction, audiences were given more details on the accusations against Jenny Jones and Benjamin Partridge for conceiving Tom. Audiences also experienced Bridget Jones’ relationship with her cold husband and the circumstances that led to the conception of Mr. Blifil. Judging from the style and pacing of the miniseries, it seems that Hüseyin was inspired by Tony Richardson’s direction of the 1963 film. There were plenty of raunchy humor and nudity to keep a viewer occupied. More importantly, “THE HISTORY OF TOM JONES, A FOUNDLING” proved to be a fascinating comic epic and commentary on class distinctions, gender inequality and social issues.

However, I still cannot agree with the prevailing view that the miniseries is better than the 1963 movie. Mind you, the latter is not perfect. But the miniseries lacked a cinematic style that gave the movie a certain kind of magic for me. And due to Hüseyin and Burke’s insistence on being as faithful to the novel as possible, the miniseries’ pacing threatened to drag in certain scenes. The scenes featuring Tom and Partridge’s encounter with an ineffectual highwayman, their viewing of a puppet show, and a good deal from the London sequences were examples of the miniseries’ slow pacing. I could not help feeling that “THE HISTORY OF TOM JONES, A FOUNDLING” could have easily been reduced to four episodes and still remain effective.

I also had a few problems with other matters. One, I never understood why Lady Bellaston continued her campaign to get Sophia married to Lord Fellamar, after Squire Western prevented the peer from raping his daughter. Why did she continued to make life miserable for Tom after receiving his marriage proposal . . . the same proposal that she rejected with contempt? And what led Sophia to finally forgive Tom for the incident with Mrs. Waters at Upton and his marriage proposal to Lady Bellaston? After he was declared as Squire Allworthy’s new heir, Sophia refused to forgive Tom for his affair with Lady Bellaston. But the next shot featured Tom and Squire Allworthy returning to Somerset . . . and being greeted by Sophia, along with hers and Tom’s children. WHAT HAPPENED? What led Sophia to finally forgive Tom and marry him? Instead of explaining or hinting what happened, Burke’s script ended on that vague and rather disappointing note.

But despite my problems with “THE HISTORY OF TOM JONES, A FOUNDLING”, I cannot deny that I found it very enjoyable. Director Metin Hüseyin and screenwriter Simon Burke did a first-rate job in bringing Henry Fielding’s comic opus to life. They were ably assisted by an excellent production staff and fine performances from a cast led by Max Beesley and Samantha Morton.

“THE GOOD SHEPHERD” (2006) Review

 

“THE GOOD SHEPHERD” (2006) Review

As far as I know, Academy Award winning actor Robert De Niro has directed at least two movies during his long career. One of them was the 1992 movie, “A BRONX’S TALE”, which I have yet to see. The other was the 2006 espionage epic called “THE GOOD SHEPHERD”

Starring Matt Damon and Angelina Jolie, “THE GOOD SHEPHERD” told the fictionalized story about the birth of the Central Intelligence Agency (C.I.A.) and counter-intelligence through the eyes of one man named Edward Wilson. Edward, the product of an East Coast aristocratic family and a C.I.A. official, has received an anonymous package during the spring of 1961. The famous C.I.A operation, the Bay of Pigs Invasion of Cuba had just failed. Inside the package is a reel-to-reel tape that reveals two unidentifiable people engaged in sex. Suspecting that the tape might reveal leads to the failure behind the Cuban operation, Edward has the tape investigated. The results lead to a possibility that the operation’s failure may have originated very close to home. During Edward’s investigation of the reel tape and the failure behind the Bay of Pigs, the movie reveals the history of his personal life and his career in both the C.I.A. and the Office of Strategic Services (O.S.S.) during World War II.

Many film critics and historians believe that the Edward Wilson character in “THE GOOD SHEPHERD” is loosely based upon the lives and careers of American intelligence officers, James Jesus Angelton and Richard M. Bissell, Jr.. And there might be some truth in this observation. But if I must be frank, I was never really concerned if the movie was a loose biography of anyone associated with the C.I.A. My concerns mainly focused on whether “THE GOOD SHEPHERD” is a good movie. Mind you, I had a few quibbles with it, but in the end I thought it was an above-average movie that gave moviegoers a peek into the operations of the C.I.A. and this country’s history between 1939 and 1961.

It is a pity that “THE GOOD SHEPHERD” was marred by a handful of prominent flaws. It really had the potential to be a well-made and memorable film. One of the problems I had were most of the characters’ emotional repression. Are we really supposed to believe that nearly every member of the upper-class in the country’s Northeast region are incapable of expressing overt emotion? I am not claiming that the performances were bad. Frankly, I was very impress by the performances featured in the movie. But the idea of nearly every major character – especially those born with a silver spoon – barely speaking above an audible whisper, due to his or her priviledged background, strikes me as more of a cliché than interesting and/or original characterization. I never understood what led Edward to finally realize that the man he believed was the genuine KGB defector Valentin Mironov, was actually a double agent. He should have realized this when the real Mironov had arrived several years earlier. The circumstances that led Edward to seek evidence inside one of the fake defector’s struck me as rather vague and far-reaching on screenwriter Eric Roth’s part. My main problem with “THE GOOD SHEPHERD” was its pacing. It was simply TOO DAMN SLOW. The movie has an interesting story, but De Niro’s snail-like pacing made it difficult for me to maintain my interest in one sitting. Thank goodness for DVDs. I feel that the only way to truly appreciate “THE GOOD SHEPHERD” without falling asleep is to watch a DVD copy in installments.

However, thanks to Eric Roth’s screenplay and Robert De Niro’s direction, “THE GOOD SHEPHERD” offered plenty of scenes and moments to enjoy. The moment of seduction at a Skull and Bones gathering that led Edward into a loveless marriage with Margaret ‘Clover’ Russell struck me as fascinating. It was a moment filled with passion and sex. Yet, the circumstances – namely Margaret’s pregnancy – forced Edward to give up a college love and marry a woman he did not truly love. I also enjoyed how De Niro and Roth used flashbacks to reveal the incidents in Edward’s post-college life and C.I.A. career, while he persisted into his investigation of the mysterious tape in the movie’s present day (1961). I was especially impressed by De Niro’s smooth ability to handle the transition from the present, to the past and back without missing a beat.

There were two scenes really stood out for me. One involved the Agency’s interrogation of the real Soviet defector, Valentin Mironov. I found it brutal, somewhat bloody and rather tragic in a perverse way. The other scene featured a loud and emotional quarrel between Edward and Margaret over the latter’s demand that Edward should convince his son not to join the C.I.A. What made this quarrel interesting is that after twenty years of a quiet and repressive marriage, the two finally revealed their true feelings for each other. But the best aspect of “THE GOOD SHEPHERD” was its depiction of how a decent, yet flawed allowed his work in intelligence and his position of power within the intelligence community warp his character. The higher Edward rose within the ranks of the C.I.A., the more he distanced himself from his family with his lies and secrets, and the more he was willing to corrupt himself in the name of national security . . . even to the extent of disrupting his son’s chance for happiness.

“THE GOOD SHEPHERD” must be one of the few large-scale movie productions, whose photography and production designs failed to give the impression of an epic. I found Robert Richardson’s photography rather limited, despite the numerous settings featured in the plot. So much of the movie’s scenes featured an interior setting. Yet, even most of the exterior scenes seemed to reflect a limited view. In the end, it was up to the movie’s 167 minute running time and 22 years time span that gave “THE GOOD SHEPHERD” an epic feel to it.

Robert De Niro and the casting team did a pretty good job in their selection of the cast. The only one I had a problem with was actor Lee Pace, who portrayed a fictionalized version of C.I.A. director Richard Helms named . . . Richard Hayes. I have always viewed Pace as an outstanding actor, but he spent most of his scenes smirking on the sidelines or making slightly insidious comments to the Edward Wilson character. I believe Roth’s screenplay had failed to give substance to his role. But there were plenty of other good supporting performances. I was especially impressed by Oleg Shtefanko’s subtle, yet insidious portryal of Edward’s KGB counterpart, Stas Siyanko aka Ulysses. Director Robert De Niro, John Sessions, Alec Baldwin, William Hurt, Billy Crudup, Joe Pesci and Tammy Blanchard all gave solid performances. Eddie Redmayne held his own with both Matt Damon and Angelina Jolie as the Wilsons’ intimidated and resentful son, Edward Wilson, Jr. Michael Gambon was his usual competent self as an MI-6 spymaster named Dr. Fredricks. Gambon was also lucky to give one of the best lines in the movie.

At least three performances impressed me. John Tuturro was very memorable as Edward’s tough and ruthless deputy, Ray Brocco. For once, De Niro’s insistence upon minimilist acting worked very well in Tuturro’s favor. The actor did an excellent job in portraying Brocco’s aggression with a very subtle performance, producing an interesting contrast in the character’s personality. I realize that Angelina Jolie had won her Oscar for “GIRL, INTERRUPTED”, a movie that had been released at least seven years before “THE GOOD SHEPHERD”. But I sincerely believe that her portryal of Edward’s long suffering wife, Margaret, was the first role in which she truly impressed me. She tossed away her usual habits and little tricks in order to give a very mature and subtle performance as a woman slowly sinking under the weight of a loveless and repressive marriage. And I believe that Jolie has not looked back, since. The task of carrying the 167-minute film fell upon the shoulders of Matt Damon and as usual, he was more than up to the job. And while there were times when his performance seemed a bit too subtle, I cannot deny that he did a superb job of developing the Edward Wilson character from a priviledge, yet inexperienced college student to a mature and emotionally repressed man who was willing to live with the negative aspects of his profession.

I do not believe that “THE GOOD SHEPHERD” will ever be considered as a great film. It has a small number of flaws, but those flaws were not as minor as they should have been – especially the slow pacing that threatened to put me to sleep. But I cannot deny it is damn good movie, thanks to Robert De Niro’s direction, Eric Roth’s screenplay and a talented cast led by Matt Damon. Five years have passed since its release. It seems a pity that De Niro has not directed a movie since.