A Tale of Two Cities is one of my favorite novels of all time. If you’re willing to put up with the year 1935, this adaptation is a good one. It has a good bit of humor, a pretty epic scope while still remaining around two hours in run time, and most importantly Ronald Colman does a fantastic job as Sydney Carton. Sydney Carton is really the soul of the story and if you don’t have him, you don’t have a film.
A Tale of Two Cities has a lot of plot, way too much for me to summarize comfortably. It goes between action in Paris and London leading up to and during the revolution. Think of it like Casablanca. In terms of overall plot, they are very similar. You have a war, you have a guy (Sydney Carton in this case, Rick in Casablanca) who could be on either side, and you have a heartbreaking sacrifice at the end.
A key point in Dickens’ novel is the mob mentality, and though a few key scenes depicting this are absent, we still get the idea from this film. When I said the film was epic in scope, one way this is felt is through the extras. There are people everywhere in this film! On the streets of Paris or during the trial scenes, the background is always filled with people. The dangerous part is when they come to the forefront.
This is most obvious in one of the pivotal moments in the film: the storming of the Bastille. Something I noticed this time around in the credits was that this sequence was not directed by Jack Conway, the film’s director, but by Val Lewton and Jacques Tourneur. They were the team behind a lot of RKO horror pictures in the forties, including Cat People. They actually first met while working on this film. As far as I can tell, the scene doesn’t really have any of the work with shadows they are primarily known for, but it’s an exciting scene nevertheless. It owes a lot to silent film, which is fine for the most part because even though the crowd is screaming you can’t really tell what they are saying. Unfortunately though, they make use of a lot of redundant intertitles that took me out of the film when I had to read them.
Though the film does have a lot of darkness in it, it also keeps a lot of Dickens’ humor and even adds some of its own. I think this is one of the films’ strongest aspects. As far as I can tell this is still the definitive adaptation of A Tale of Two Cities (something that should really be corrected in my opinion), and the humor it adds in is unique to the time that it’s from. There are a lot of witty one liners and characters that are made even more comic than in the original novel. My favorite is how they handled the character of Miss Pross (Edna May Oliver). She is made even more hilariously overcritical here while still retaining her over protectiveness towards Lucie (Elizabeth Allan).
The performances are the most important aspect of the film, and as I said before, it’s mainly Sydney Carton you are going to pay attention to. Ronald Colman does a fantastic job. He captures the sense of resignation and failure that Carton embodies, while still allowing the audience to glimpse a better side of him from time to time. His character is also given a lot more humor, especially in the scene where he tracks down Barsad. It’s a great scene that did not appear in the novel, but fits the characters nonetheless. That’s really all I ask for in a film adaptation of a novel.
Besides adding more humor, this film really isn’t trying to mix up what the novel gives you. It shortens some things down to fit into its just over two hours run time, but that’s really about it. It’s an enjoyable film and I guarantee you will be saddened a bit by the ending. Though I really believe A Tale of Two Cities deserves a more modern film as well, this 1935 version definitely suffices for the time being.
“It’s a far, far better thing I do than I have ever done. It’s a far, far better rest I go to than I have ever known.”
Long story short: 3/4 stars
For Further Reading: