PBS Masterpiece and ITV have done a new adaption of The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling by Henry Fielding. This four-part series, Tom Jones (2023), makes a few small changes to the novel, but is essentially the same story of a randy 18th-century lad of uncertain parentage who’s trying to make his way to his one true love.
It’s hard for me not to compare this adaption to the 1963 movie starring Albert Finney, since I grew up with that one and for all it’s faults-of-its-era, it’s just a ridiculously fun flick. Solly McLeod as the latest Tom Jones doesn’t have Finney’s roguish flair, the twinkle in his eye. This new Tom is naive and clueless, stumbling from one lady’s bed to another, whilst pining for his idealized Miss Western (Sophie Wilde). For all that this adaption was promoted as a rom-com, it’s not particularly funny or witty. The dialog is a bit flat, and only the baddie characters have any zip. Tom and Sophia, as the leads, are rather bland. This isn’t a horrible way to spend four hours (unlike certain gritty reboots or modernized classics), but I wanted more life, more pizzaz when the source material is pretty wild, raunchy, and laughably preposterous at times.
One moderately good thing about the script is how Sophia is changed to be a Black woman in this version. In the novel, she’s Squire Western’s daughter, and here she’s his granddaughter. His son had this child with an enslaved woman in Jamaica and freed her in his will; Sophia was sent to her grandfather as a six-year-old. While the Western family accepts her unreservedly, Sophia does experience racism from the larger society, although her wealth makes up for a lot. There’s a running theme that she wants to be free to make her own choices in life because her mother could not. This integrated casting makes sense and doesn’t feel either totally color-blind or heavy-handed.
Like the story, the costumes by Hazel Webb Crozier (who has mostly done contemporary TV) are just fine but not spectacular. On Masterpiece.com, Hannah Waddingham said of her Lady Bellaston costumes: “We’re meant to be set in 1769, so [what we wear] is all absolutely accurate, everything made to measure, every wig, every everything.” Of course, that’s just the actor’s point of view. The same promo reported that costume designer Hazel Webb Crozier studied 18th-c. art for as research and ordered Irish linen to use in the costumes. It was a fast-paced production, and Webb Crozier said: “We got it down to [making] about a dress every three days.”
The aesthetic seems to be “18th-century casual” for the leads because they’re “different” than typical folks of the period. The more authentic historical styles are reserved for the high-falutin’ and nastily-inclined characters. Thus, Tom never wears a cravat, his shirt and waistcoat hang open, and his hair is in a modern cut, while his nemesis Blifil (James Wilbraham) always wears a properly tied cravat with shirt and buttoned waistcoat and his hair is tied back in a queue.
In an interview with Salon, Solly McLeod referenced his character’s open shirt, admitting:
“It is yes, a lot of chest. We actually have to sew it up a little bit because there was too much, almost down to my belly button. There were scenes that we filmed — this is Northern Ireland in the winter — and with a flowy shirt I was like, ‘It’s cold today.’ But it was a comfortable costume, his general one. It was nice being natural. I think that’s what they wanted to do with Tom.”
Lady Bellaston (Hannah Waddingham) is the only woman in full upper-class 18th-c. dress with panniers and a high hairstyle, because she’s immoral and utterly wicked. Plus, the foppy lords she hangs out with are in fashionable suits, tall wigs, and tons of makeup — because they, too, are naughty creatures.
I guess the costume designer really liked button-front stomachers because Lady Bellaston wears them A LOT. It’s not an uncommon thing, as we’ve pointed out before, but I wonder if it’s supposed to mean “easy access” for this character? Maybe I’m reading too much into it, since mousey married Aunt Harriet (Tamzin Merchant) also has one button-front gown.
There’s no denying the meaning of Bellaston’s final gown — she wears bright red for “battle” when she tries to tear apart Tom and Sophia for good. Bad girls wear red on film, amirite?
Similarly, the suitor that Bellaston foists on Sophia, Lord Fellamar (Tom Durant Pritchard), is an over-the-top fop. Quite the opposite of “natural” Tom Jones.
Compare them with sweet, pure, upstanding Sophia, who wears gowns of quality (as noticed by various other characters) but in a more simple fashion.
And I wouldn’t be me if I didn’t nitpick this:
Plus, some of the extras had janky costumes, and this one kept searing my eyes every time it popped up, so I share the pain with you:
Have you watched the latest Tom Jones?