movie review: a tale of two cities

This adaptation of the classic novel by Charles Dickens finds courageous British lawyer Sydney Carton (Ronald Colman) defending French aristocrat Charles Darnay (Donald Woods) from false accusations of treason against England. Carton also becomes enamored with Darnay’s beautiful bride-to-be, Lucie (Elizabeth Allan), but she and Darnay marry and begin to raise a family in England. Then, when Darnay falls into the hands of French revolutionaries, Carton once again comes to his rescue.


When I was studying A Tale of Two Cities in school a few years ago, my grandfather asked me to watch the 1935 movie adaption (which is the one I’m reviewing today) with him.  Fresh from watching the Greer Garson version of Pride & Prejudice (to this day, I bemoan the lack of literary and historical accuracy in that movie) and thinking that black-and-white movies were boring (I didn’t know anything back then, eh?), I reluctantly agreed.  Two boring hours spent watching a bad adaption of what was, at the time, my favorite classic?  No, thank you.

But then I ended up hiding buckets of tears from everyone else in the room and went away singing the film’s praises.  Maybe old movies weren’t so bad after all! (Imagine that…)  While Casablanca was the first b&w film to make me truly love Old Hollywood and its awesomeness, A Tale of Two Cities (1935) almost did the same.  No ‘old movie’ had made me cry before, so that was a new experience (and I do love books and movies that make me cry) and the whole thing was extremely well-done.  Anyway…fast-forward to the present day, in which about seventy-five percent of all movies I watch come from the 30’s-60’s, and where I’ve just re-read ATOTC, and now I’m eager to re-watch the movie and see if it measured up to how I remembered it.  And did it?


Ohhhh my goodness.  It turned out to be just as good as I’d remembered (if not better), made me cry lots, and also fall in love with Sydney Carton all over again.  In terms of book-to-film accuracy, I’d say this movie is one of the best adaptions (especially for such an old one) – nearly every line of dialogue is taken straight from the pages of the book, scenes that are changed or combined or added flow well and make sense, and nearly all the casting is spot-on (more so than a lot of adaptions these days).

Let’s talk about book-to-movie changes first (though I’m sure I won’t be able to touch on all of them).  Firstly, the resemblance between Sydney and Charles isn’t really a major part of the plot.  “What?!” you may exclaim.  “Isn’t that one of the biggest parts of the book?”  Well, yes.  It is.  But in the context of the movie, everything makes sense – Sydney wheedles everything out of Barsad (everything concerning the false accusations about Charles being a spy, I mean) the night before the trial, so when he stands up in court, it’s more Barsad recognizing the man he spilled the beans to (and being afraid that Sydney would betray him) than admitting that Sydney and Charles look extremely alike.  And then in the final scenes – the exchange, the bit in the holding cell, etc. – Sydney hides his face quite a bit and keeps to the shadows (don’t worry, it’s not contrived or anything), so that all makes sense.  And I actually appreciate the change because, yes, it works perfectly in the book, but movie versions either have Charles and Sydney played by the same actor (ugh) or have them look nothing alike and pretend that they do (double ugh).  So I think this version gets it pretty much right.

Two other changes I can think of at the moment are that the two court cases in France are combined into one (because of time constraints, I assume) and – this is a petty one – instead of replying something along the lines of “For his wife and child” when the seamstress asks him why he’s taking Charles’ place, Sydney says “Because he’s my friend”.  A bit of a stretch?  They could have included both lines, in my opinion, but like I said, that’s a petty thing and doesn’t detract from the film one bit.  Just personal preference.  And, really, as long as the casting is good and the film stays true to the spirit of the book (in my opinion, that’s the most important thing) any movie adaption should be about perfect. (Case in point: Pride & Prejudice 2005.)


And the casting!  Absolute perfection, with only two exceptions: Charles and Lucie.  Charles is stiff and wooden, sad to say (a truly good actor could have improved upon his character in the book, just as Russell Tovey did with John Chivery in the Little Dorrit miniseries).  And Elizabeth Allan (Lucie) was both a weak actress and too much a product of the 30’s for my taste.  I mean, Lucie is supposed to be this wonderful, wonderful girl that gives Sydney reason wake from his apathy (if only a little) and causes Charles to fall head over heels for her.  And I didn’t get a sense of that.   But everyone else was great, from Edna May Oliver as Miss Pross to Basil Rathbone as the Maquis St. Evrémonde (one of the best casting decisions – he makes such an impression, even though he’s only in two or three scenes).  The entire cast worked together extremely well and it was a joy and delight to watch them bring Dickens’ amazing characters to life. (I was a bit hesitant about Blanche Yurka’s Madame Defarge at first, but she ended up winning me over with her incredibly passionate and believable performance.)

Every production of A Tale of Two Cities rises or falls – more or less – on its portrayal of Sydney, and Ronald Colman is Sydney Carton.  I used to prefer James Barbour’s portrayal (in the musical concert) but now he seems to be playing the part more than being the part (though he does have moments of brilliance), whereas as Ronald Colman will always be Sydney to me.  No one can quiiiite match up to my image of Book Sydney, I’ll admit, but Colman does a spectacular job nonetheless.  Poignant and humorous and heartbreaking…  I can’t explain how perfectly he fits the role – you’ll just have to see it for yourself!  I think it’s his eyes especially; during the Christmas scenes (not in the book, but I love them anyway) in particular, my heart breaks for him.  And nothing can match how he plays the final scenes with the seamstress and the guillotine and it’s AWFUL. (But beautiful.  Especially his delivery of The Line.)  I sob my eyes out every time.  And I’m coming this close to putting Ronald Colman on my [still rather short] list of ‘Actors I Won’t Watch In Anything Else But That One Movie Because They Were So Amazing’. (And now Elisabeth’s shaking her head at me because she thinks my stance on Paul Newman and Liam Neeson movies is ridiculous.)

This review ended up being much longer than I’d thought it’d be, but I’m glad I got all my thoughts across. (Well, most of them.)  Have you ever seen this movie?  What did you think of it?  And what did you think of Ronald Colman’s Sydney?



4 thoughts on “movie review: a tale of two cities

  1. jessica prescott



    I’m glad they did such a great job! It’s so annoying when a really good book gets a mediocre film adaptation; so it’s awesome that this one actually lives up to expectations.


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