In 1999 the British Film Institute named it the 51st greatest British film of the 20th Century.
The story begins with a silent film sequence during which the good Squire Allworthy (George Devine) returns home after a lengthy stay in London and discovers a baby (played by a girl, Lynn Goldsworthy) in his bed. Thinking that his barber, Mr. Partridge (Jack MacGowran), and one of his servants, Jenny Jones (Joyce Redman), have "birthed" the infant out of lust, the squire banishes them and chooses to raise little Tom Jones as if he were his own son.
Tom (Albert Finney) grows up to be a lively young man whose good looks and kind heart make him very popular with the opposite sex. However, he truly loves only one woman, the gentle Sophie Western (Susannah York), who returns his passion. Sadly, Tom is stigmatized as a "bastard" and cannot wed a young lady of her high station. Sophie, too, must hide her feelings while her aunt (Edith Evans) and her father, Squire Western (Hugh Griffith) try to coerce her to marry a more suitable man – a man whom she hates.
This young man is Blifil (David Warner, in his film debut), the son of the Squire's widowed sister Bridget (Rachel Kempson). Although he is of legitimate birth, he is an ill-natured fellow with plenty of hypocritical 'virtue' but none of Tom's warmth, honesty, or high spirits. When Bridget dies unexpectedly, Blifil intercepts a letter, which his mother intended for her brother's eyes only. What this letter contains is not revealed until the end of the movie; however, after his mother's funeral, Blifil and his two tutors, Mr. Thwackum (Peter Bull) and Mr. Square (John Moffatt), join forces to convince the squire that Tom is a villain. Allworthy gives Tom a small cash legacy and sorrowfully sends him out into the world to seek his fortune.
In his road-travelling odyssey, Tom is knocked unconscious while defending the good name of his beloved Sophie and robbed of his legacy. He also flees from a jealous Irishman who falsely accuses him of having an affair with his wife, engages in deadly sword fights, meets his alleged father and his alleged mother, a certain Mrs. Waters, whom he saves from an evil Redcoat Officer, and later beds the same Mrs. Waters. In a celebrated scene, Tom and Mrs. Waters sit opposite each other in the dining room of the Upton Inn, wordlessly consuming an enormous meal while gazing lustfully at each other.
Meanwhile, Sophie runs away from home soon after Tom's banishment to escape the attentions of the loathed Blifil. After narrowly missing each other at the Upton Inn, Tom and Sophie arrive separately in London. There, Tom attracts the attention of Lady Bellaston (Joan Greenwood), a promiscuous noblewoman over 40 years of age. She is rich, beautiful, and completely amoral, though it is worth noting that Tom goes to her bed willingly and is generously rewarded for his services. Eventually, Tom ends up at Tyburn Gaol, facing a boisterous hanging crowd after two blackguardly agents of Blifil frame him for robbery and attempted murder. Allworthy learns the contents of the mysterious letter: Tom is not Jenny Jones's child, but Bridget's illegitimate son and Allworthy's nephew. Furthermore, since Blifil knew this, concealed it, and tried to destroy his half-brother, he is now in disgrace and disinherited. Allworthy uses this knowledge to get Tom a pardon, but Tom has already been conveyed to the gallows; his hanging is begun, but is interrupted by Squire Western, who cuts him down and takes him to Sophie. Tom now has permission to court Sophie, and all ends well with Tom embracing Sophie with Squire Western's blessing.
Bridgwater's Castle Street was used as a location in several scenes. Bryanston Films hesitated to make the film in colour and shortly went bankrupt. The film was financed by American production money through United Artists.
The production suffered from more than the usual disasters, near-disasters and squabbles attending films shot on location in English weather. Tony Richardson was dissatisfied with the final product, notwithstanding its acclaim by others. In his autobiography Richardson wrote:
"I felt the movie to be incomplete and botched in much of its execution. I am not knocking that kind of success – everyone should have it – but whenever someone gushes to me about Tom Jones, I always cringe a little inside."
Cinematographer Walter Lassally has said that in his opinion the location unit got on very well together under the circumstances, and that the experience was satisfying. He thought Richardson rather lost his way in post-production, endlessly fixing what was not really broken.
Several of the sequences are regarded as brilliantly photographed by Lassally, such as the hunt scene and the village square scene.
The film was highly successful financially, becoming the third most popular at the British box office in 1963, and the 4th most popular in the United States. Produced on a budget of $1 million, it grossed $37,600,000 domestically, earning $16 million in rentals in North America and $4 million in the rest of the world.
The film was reissued in 1989; for this release, Richardson trimmed the film by seven minutes.
Tom Jones has received positive reviews from critics. It currently holds an 83% 'Fresh' rating on online review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, based on 30 reviews with an average rating of 7.9 out of 10; its critics consensus reads: "A frantic, irreverent adaptation of the novel, bolstered by Albert Finney's courageous performance and arresting visuals."
Time Magazine published the following review: "The film is a way-out, walleyed, wonderful exercise in cinema. It is also a social satire written in blood with a broadaxe. It is bawdy as the British were bawdy when a wench had to wear five petticoats to barricade her virtue." Rich Gold of Variety wrote the following: "Though 'Tom Jones' is a period piece and very different it has the same lustiness and boisterous content with which to project the star. It should breeze its way cheerfully through the box office figures. It has sex, Eastmancolor, some prime performers and plenty of action. Tony Richardson has directed John Osborne's screenplay with verve, though, occasionally, he falls back on camera tricks and editing which are disconcerting."Wins
Best Picture (Tony Richardson, Michael Holden, Oscar Lewenstein, producers)
Best Director (Tony Richardson)
Best Substantially Original Score (John Addison)
Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium (John Osborne)
Best Actor – Albert Finney
Best Supporting Actor – Hugh Griffith
Best Supporting Actress – Diane Cilento
Best Supporting Actress – Edith Evans
Best Supporting Actress – Joyce Redman
Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Color (Ralph W. Brinton, Ted Marshall, Jocelyn Herbert, Josie MacAvin).
Tom Jones is the only film in the history of the Academy in which three actresses were nominated for Best Supporting Actress Oscar. All three nominations were unsuccessful, however, as the Award went to Dame Margaret Rutherford for her role in The V.I.P.s. Tom Jones's five unsuccessful acting nominations matched the record set by Peyton Place at the 30th Academy Awards, the last film to date to do so.
Ilya Lopert accepted the Academy Award for Best Picture on behalf of the producers. Upon Lopert's death, the Best Picture Academy Award was passed onto Albert Finney.Wins
Best Film from any source
Best British Film
Best British Screenplay (John Osborne)
Best British Actor (Albert Finney)
Best British Actor (Hugh Griffith)
Best British Actress (Edith Evans)
Best English-Language Foreign Film
Best Motion Picture – Comedy
Most Promising Newcomer – Male (Albert Finney) (tied with Stathis Giallelis for America, America (1963) and Robert Walker Jr. for The Ceremony (1963).
Best Motion Picture Actor – Musical/Comedy (Albert Finney)
Best Motion Picture Director (Tony Richardson)
Best Supporting Actor (Hugh Griffith)
Best Supporting Actress (Joan Greenwood)
New York Film Critics Circle AwardsBest Actor (Albert Finney)
Best Director (Tony Richardson)
Venice Film FestivalVolpi Cup: Best Actor (Albert Finney)
Golden Lion: Tony Richardson (nom)
Writers' Guild of Great BritainBest British Comedy Screenplay (John Osborne)
Grammy AwardsBest Original Score from a Motion Picture (John Addison)