Happy birthday, Mr Dickens!
Yes, Charles Dickens was born exactly 200 years ago today – on February 7, 1812, in Portsea. In his lifetime, he wrote a number of short stories and non-fictional works, besides about a dozen major novels. He was recognised as one of Britain’s greatest writers within his lifetime – and cinema took to his stories like a duck to water. Have a look at his filmography, and you’ll see what I mean. Dozens of adaptations, feature films, short films and TV series, have been made of Dickens’s work.
So, as a tribute to Charles Dickens, here’s one of them: a story of love and hate set against the backdrop of the French Revolution. A Tale of Two Cities.
The two cities in question are Paris and London, but the story itself begins in neither of them – instead, it begins on a dark night in the English countryside. A mail coach, stuck in the mud, is hailed by a lone rider, who has a message for one of the passengers. The passenger is a Mr Lorry (Cecil Parker – a coincidence on this blog, since he also acted in the last film I reviewed). Mr Lorry works for a bank named Tellson’s, with branches in London and Paris.
The messenger is Mr Lorry’s servant, Jerry Cruncher (Alfie Bass). He hands over a note which makes Mr Lorry excited.
Mr Lorry sends Cruncher off with a short verbal message – “recalled to life” – and gets back into the coach, where there’s another passenger. This is a young advocate, a wastrel and a drunkard named Sydney Carton (Dirk Bogarde).
The coach, once freed of the mud, goes on to its destination, Dover. Mr Lorry and Carton take rooms in the inn, and Mr Lorry also reserves one for a young lady who will be arriving in the evening.
The young lady – Lucie Manette (Dorothy Tutin) – arrives by the evening mail coach, accompanied by her companion Miss Pross (Athene Seyler). Also in the coach is a shifty-eyed man, and a handsome young gentleman named Charles Darnay (Paul Guers). Darnay and Lucie have become friends during the journey, and when they part ways at Dover, it’s with the hope – on both sides – that they will meet again.
Later that evening, Mr Lorry has a meeting with Lucie Manette. It turns out that Mr Lorry has been Lucie’s guardian for the past 18 years, ever since her English-born mother and French father died.
Mr Lorry now tells Lucie the horrifying tale of her father’s supposed death. This story, he says, has come to him from Defarge, the former servant of Lucie’s father.
He says that 18 years ago, Lucie’s father, a distinguished surgeon named Dr Manette (Stephen Murray) was summoned to the chateau of the Marquis St. Evremonde (Christopher Lee). There, Dr Manette found that the patient was a hysterical young peasant woman, who had been brutally gagged and bound to a bed. Despite Dr Manette’s efforts, she died.
While at the chateau, Dr Manette was also taken – on the sly, by the marquis’s steward – to the stables, where a teenaged boy lay dying from a sword wound. The steward and the boy both told Dr Manette of the marquis’s extreme cruelty towards the villagers in his lands. The boy, it emerged, was the brother of the girl who had just died – the marquis had raped her.
Just as he was dying, the boy told Dr Manette that he had another sister, just 15 years old. He begged Dr Manette to save her from the marquis.
A shaken Dr Manette returned to his house, and decided to write to the authorities about the atrocities committed by the marquis. He also instructed his servant Defarge (Duncan Lamont) to find the girl whose siblings had just died, and to take her away from the reach of the marquis.
Defarge rescued the girl, taking her to his parents to be sheltered; but Dr Manette was not so lucky. The marquis was a powerful man, and had Dr Manette arrested and summarily imprisoned in the Bastille.
But – and here’s the sensational news! – Dr Manette is now free.
That is why Mr Lorry has called Lucie to Dover: they will cross the Channel and go to Paris to get her father. Defarge has been taking care of Dr Manette ever since the doctor was freed.
So they go to Paris and to Defarge’s home – now a wine shop. Defarge had married the girl whom he had rescued. Madame Defarge (Rosalie Crutchley) is bitter, angry and suspicious of just about everybody.
There’s a touching reunion between Lucie and her father, though Dr Manette has lost his wits and is a wreck who spends all his time making shoes. He doesn’t even know his own name – when asked, all he can say is “One hundred and five, North Tower”.
Two years pass, and Lucie’s loving care has restored Dr Manette to the extent that he’s considering reviving his practice.
One day, Mr Lorry comes to visit them, and with bad news: Charles Darnay is accused of being a spy – of handing over important naval documents to the French. Mr Lorry says that he has engaged a lawyer, Mr Stryver (Ernest Clark) to defend Darnay. Mr Lorry himself is of the opinion that the incriminating papers were planted on Darnay.
(a) Stryver’s junior is Sydney Carton, whom she had briefly met at Dover two years earlier
(b) The main witness against Darnay is a man named Barsad (Donald Pleasance) – the same shifty-eyed character who had been in the coach travelling with Lucie, Miss Pross and Darnay, two years earlier
Stryver tries, unsuccessfully, to break down Barsad’s evidence, but fails. Even Lucie, called to give evidence, is unable to impress the jury. Success comes only when Carton gives Stryver a suggestion… which is to show that Darnay could well be mistaken for another young, dark-haired man, such as Carton himself:
Anyway, Darnay is acquitted, Lucie is very grateful to Carton, and he realises that she is already in love with Darnay – she’d collapsed when she thought her evidence had damned Darnay.
Later that evening, Darnay and Carton have a drink together. Carton is caustic, not particularly fond of Darnay, but he gives Darnay some advice: to be vigilant. Once accused, always under suspicion.
Darnay mentions to Carton that he’s going for a few days to France – to wind up his affairs there once and for all.
What affairs these are, we soon discover. Charles Darnay is actually the cousin and heir of the Marquis St. Evremonde. Darnay is so disgusted by the tyranny of his cousin (and of the aristocracy in general) that he’s come to let Evremonde know that he’s giving up all his rights to the title and the property. He’s come to the estate merely to gather up whatever few personal belongings he still has there. Then he’ll shift to England for good, and work to earn his living, rather than live off the labour of others.
… and doesn’t realise that his sins are about to catch up with him. That night, as the Marquis is sleeping, a villager (whose son was run over by the Marquis’s carriage, and to whom the Marquis tossed a coin as compensation) enters… in the morning, the Marquis is found stabbed, dead.
Carton, drunk and haunting the street outside Lucie’s home, one day falls and hits his head. When she takes him into her home and attends to him, he – still drunk – tells her how much he loves her. And how he would lay down his life for her happiness. And how, if he can ever be of service to her, she shouldn’t hesitate to ask.
He does return, now sober, the next day, to apologise for his drunkenness, and to assure Lucie that his promise – of always helping her, to whatever extent – stands good. As he’s leaving, Darnay arrives. He proposes to Lucie and is ecstatically accepted (of course!).
… and Carton gives them a piece of news: Barsad, who had been the prime witness against Darnay in that case, is dead.
Far away, across the Channel in France, trouble is brewing. The murder of the Marquis St. Evremonde was only the first of the uprisings against the aristocracy. Now the fire is spreading, and who knows where it will spread, and whom it will consume on the way?
What I liked about this film:
I have a theory: when it comes to period drama, the British are hard to beat. I’ve nothing against Hollywood, but the Brits really, really know how to do period drama well, whether they’re making films or TV series or whatever. They excel at it, and A Tale of Two Cities is a good example. The atmosphere is excellent and believable (especially the madness that grips Paris); the story is engrossing; and the acting is good.
Dirk Bogarde as Sydney Carton is especially superb – he portrays the many dimensions of this complex character very well. Seemingly superficial, too fond of his wine, cynical, sarcastic – yet a man with a very sharp mind and a surprisingly unselfish loyalty for the woman he loves – a loyalty that actually knows no bounds.
What I didn’t like:
Oddly enough (considering this is a British film), while the exteriors that are set in France generally look authentic and believable, most of the British ones have a distinct look of being sets.
Plus, there is stuff about the story – the rather tangled, complicated plot, and the end (which I don’t like at all)… but those are really not the fault of the film makers. More on that, in the section below.
For anybody who’s been reading this blog long enough: you probably know by now that I’m a purist when it comes to screen adaptations of books. I hate it when perfectly good books are changed – for no rhyme or reason – to fit film makers’ expectations of what a good film (or, more aptly perhaps, a profitable film) should be.
So, I’m happy to say: I thought this one a good adaptation of Dickens’s novel. Some changes have been made, of course (Darnay is Evremonde’s cousin in the film rather than his nephew, as in the book; and the entire story has been condensed into a little over two years, rather than the twelve or so years that the book stretches over).
Those are changes, however, which don’t really affect the story that much, and are probably more suitable for screen. Dickens’s novel uses lots of description to fill out the space between the years and to generally meander over time – since the film chooses to be more fast-paced, I didn’t mind it being a more condensed version.
What did puzzle me about the film was why certain episodes were moved around. In the novel, for example, the fact that Madame Defarge was the sister of the one raped and killed by Evremonde isn’t revealed till almost the end. Similarly, the back story – of why Dr Manette was imprisoned – appears close to the end. By bringing both revelations right to the beginning of the film, two vital secrets are revealed right at the start.
Despite that, this is a worthy adaptation. True, I couldn’t (naturally) get the full flavour of Dickens’s inimitable humour, but – I found myself feeling for Sydney Carton and his doomed love. I was horrified by the unfeeling, single-minded madness of Madame Defarge. And I could both feel angry at the aristocrats, and be sickened by those who sent even innocent people blithely to the guillotine.