The period drama productions of Masterpiece on PBS can accurately be called a staple of television. Though the brand has expanded to include a Mystery offshoot, Masterpiece is almost synonymous with adaptations of classic literature. The early English novel Tom Jones now takes its turn in front of the Masterpiece cameras, and the result is a decently written and gorgeously produced miniseries that will satisfy anyone’s appetite for costume drama.
The full title of Henry Fielding’s 1749 work is actually The History of Tom Jones, A Foundling. That’s a good indication of his long-winded style but Fielding makes sure the plot cooks. Wealthy and unmarried Squire Allworthy is surprised one night by the appearance of a baby boy in his bedroom. He finds the unmarried teenager Jenny Jones who admits to leaving the baby and decides to raise him himself. Soon, Allworthy’s sister Bridget marries Captain Blifil and has a son of her own. A natural rivalry between the two boys is only the foundation for the many dramas that fill their lives when they come of age. And of course, the biggest conflict is all about a girl. Specifically, Sophia Western, the neighboring squire’s daughter.
A strong cast takes on the flawed but interesting characters in Tom Jones, while the largely faithful script keeps the melodramatic plot watchable in its translation to a new medium.
“Hope keeps you awake at night, dreaming of things that can never be.”
Allworthy (James Fleet) and his sister do their best to raise Tom and give him the benefit of the doubt when he can’t keep out of mischief as he grows up. By the time they are of age, this earns the resentment of young Blifil. Tom (Solly McLeod) will never have social status like Blifil (James Wilbraham) does because of his birth. However, he is good-looking and liked by many. Especially women, like the daughter of Allworthy’s gamekeeper.
Sophia (Sophie Wilde) changes everything for them, though. The miniseries changes her from Western’s daughter to his granddaughter, and he will never allow her to marry illegitimate Tom. Without her consent, the Squires have arranged for Sophia to marry Blifil. You can probably guess that she doesn’t want to. First because Blifil is a mean-spirited ass but also because she and Tom have fallen in love.
Though Tom has a good heart, this mistake is one too many for Allworthy. He banishes Tom from his home. Tom also believes that Sophia and Blifil are about to be married, so he decides to leave for London. The sequence of events that follow is convoluted but entertaining, and this production makes the most of them.
“Love conquers all.”
Tom loves Sophia but he thinks he will never be with her so he can’t quite help himself when other women express interest in him. The coincidences pile up as Sophia tries to escape marriage to Blifil and Tom falls a step behind in trying to make himself worthy of her. Tom is lucky enough to get help from a few people along the way who are true friends to him. Meanwhile,Sophia is seemingly cursed with three aunts (yes, THREE) who are not helpful AT ALL.
In fact, one of them, Lady Bellaston (Hannah Waddingham), manages to seduce Tom and then conspire with Blifil to destroy his life. She is incensed when Tom tries to end their arrangement because he finally wants to be true to Sophia. Even if he can’t have her. Waddingham draws out the complexities of this society lady, but she remains a true villain.
It’s difficult to root for Tom while watching his Lothario ways but his character does come into better focus in the final episode. Plus, the interaction between Tom and Sophia is sweet and contrasts with his other conquests nicely so that you want them together. When circumstances finally reveal that Tom’s mother is actually Bridget Allworthy (Felicity Montagu), Tom and Sophia’s happy ending is assured. I like the fact that the writers altered the book’s plot so that Bridget is still alive when Tom finds out. The viewer gets to see that touching moment. The memorable supporting characters and wonderful production values of Tom Jones combine with the cast and story for a good series that period drama fans will enjoy.
3 1/2 stars out of 5
Tom Jones aired on PBS Masterpiece and is streaming on PBS Passport.