Tony Richardson's greatest success was the 1963 movie version of Henry Fielding's "Tom Jones." A movie version of Fielding's earlier comic novel, "Joseph Andrews, must have recommended itself as a potential career-restorer, particularly after "The Return of the Pink Panther" had turned things around for Blake Edwards and Peter Sellers. "Joseph Andrews" is now at area theaters, and turns out to be an occasion that Richardson appears too jaded, tired or generally out of sorts to rise to.
Allan Scott and Chris Bryant seem to have contributed a proficient screenplay, reducing the novel's rambling, discursive pleasure to a continuity that includes all the major characters and hits most of the comic high spots.They've even invented a new wrinkle on the plot - a little detail about the mystery of Joseph's parentage - that might have seemed apt and amusing to Fielding himself.
Photographed by David Watkin, the movie certainly looks more than presentable, and the sheer act of turning an experienced British cast loose on Fielding's gallery of characters is bound to pay some dividends. Hen Michael Horden's Parson Adams asks Beryl Reid's malapropic Mrs. Slipslop if he can have a moment of her time and she replies merrily, "I always enjoy a loquation with a man of larnin," you realize that the film has personnel capable of reproducing the spirit of the novel, but the bright patches tend to be few and far between.
Richardson directs the opening secquence, a country May Day celebration, as if he were a dirty-minded anthropologist, and the first slapstick bit - Parson Admas making a shambles of a luncheon being setfor the local gentry; Peter Bull as a goutish Sir Thomas Booby; and Ann-Margret as the amorous Lady Booby, who has a yen for her young footman Joseph Andrews - is staged in such a clumsy, perfunctory way that your apprehensions increase.
"Tom Jones" was a pleasant surprise in part because one didn't anticipate such a robust, good-humored entertainment from Tony Richardson and John Osborne. The obstrusive bits of "social commentary" - the bloodspattered hunting scenes, for example - could be regarded as incidental. They may have been Richardson's way of keeping gratuitous faith with his documentary and socially conscious impulses, but they didn't spoil the comedy or retard the pace.
In "Joseph Andrews" the comedy is spoiled, and the pace has slowed from sprightly to stately. The women lusting after Joseph are so heavily powdered and roughed that one can't doubt a deliberate decision to make them look ugly. A figure as voluptuous as Ann-Margret's is supposed to make us recoil, even though the costumes and ads to out of the way to emphasize her qualifications for the role of Lady Booby. In "Tom Jones" it wasn't only Susannah York who looked blooming. Even the venerable Edith Evans appeared to be in great shape.
Richardson isn't being more faithful to the period by emphasizing the garish in "Joseph Andrews." He's just approaching the same author with a less healthy attitude. When he interjects such elements as satanist rituals and bondage into the episode dealing with a lustful squire's attempts to seduce Joseph's fiancee, the ingenuous Fanny Goodwill, Richardson wanders way off the decadent deep end, creating the mood one might expect if Ken Russell were having a whack at Fielding.
The director's diminished vitality may be measured by the desperation of composer John Addison, who keeps trying to whip up the froth that's missing in the staging and cutting of most of the scenes. Even the casting of the scenes. Even the casting of the romantic leads is an indication of failing romantic instincts. Peter Firth and Natalie Ogle seem like Pale, wilted flower children compared to performers as healthy and rediant as Albert Finney and Sysannah York at the time of "Tom Jones." The bloom isn't necessarily off "Joseph Andrews," but it's definitely off Tony Richardson.