What Is British Cinema?: "Saturday Night and Sunday Morning" (1960) and "Tom Jones" (1965)

The gritty kitchen-sink drama and the literary costume film: these are two of the poles around which British cinema has seemingly been doomed to orbit.  Looking at British cinema’s “New Wave” period of the early 60s we see the young, talented Albert Finney negotiate them both, moving from the gray, dull world of the former to the sumptuous and more spirited world of the latter: Finney had debuted in a small part at the beginning of Tony Richardson’s The Entertainer (1960) before making a more dramatic entrance later that year as the Angry Young Man at the center of Karel Reisz’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960, pictured above).  Bored with his factory job, contemptuous of his resigned, complacent parents—and of all resigned, complacent pensioners who have accepted their lot, living in cardboard-box-like houses and stuck in unhappy marriages—Finney’s character lives only for the pleasures of Saturday night, of boozing and rutting.  But the end of the film finds him effectively castrated.  His livelihood stands ready to be crushed by his settling down into marriage with a pretty but bland girlfriend and their moving into a petit-bourgeois housing development. 

As the title character in Tony Richardson’s hugely successful adaptation of Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones (1963, below), Finney’s sexual appetites are lustier and less neurotic; his Tom cheerfully wanders out of one bedroom farce and into the next.  Like Saturday Night, Tom Jones ends by gesturing toward heterosexual monogamy as an end to the chaotic sexual games through which its hero has spent the past two hours reeling.  Tom reunites with his dream girl, solves the mystery of his parentage, and is given the blessing of his benefactor.  Order is restored, but much less ominously than in the previous film, which suggests a kind of death into order; somehow, even if Tom has nominally “settled down,” we can’t quite imagine him putting away the childish sexual antics of his youth. 

Even more ominous, though, than the downbeat ending of Saturday Night is the death of the British New Wave into the prestige picture—a death which has lasted these past fifty or so years.  In Tom Jones, it’s not Tom who’s settling down/settling for; it’s Richardson, who traded the sharpness of The Entertainer for something safer and more easily consumable (and Tom Jones went on to win the Academy Award for Best Picture—a feat that, watching the film today, seems baffling but perhaps should not come as a surprise).  Never mind that Richardson followed up Tom Jones with the wonderfully snarky and tasteless adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s The Loved One (1965); Tom Jones is a sell-out, an often grating attempt to infuse a classic novel with a wink-wink nudge-nudge pop sensibility (never mind that the novel is already doing plenty of winking and nudging of its own).  It’s the hip period piece as high-concept product, which is to say a gimmick, a contrivance. 

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