"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, we have everything before us, we had nothing before us...in short, it was a period very like the present..."
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These are the words that introduce us to A Tale of Two Cities, the 1935 movie adaptation of the classic Dickens novel. Directed by Jack Conway, the story begins in pre-Revolution France, focusing on the plight of the downtrodden people who have suffered at the hands of the French aristocracy. One of these people is Dr. Manette (played by Henry B. Walthall), driven mad after being held prisoner in the Bastille for 18 years. Only the love and care of his daughter Lucie (Elizabeth Allan), who had only recently discovered he was still alive, brings him back to reality, where the two depart quickly to head back to England.
It is on the boat ride home that they first meet Charles Darnay (played by Donald Woods), nephew of the Marquis St. Evremonde (played by the dastardly Basil Rathbone). The Marquis' cruelty, shown early as his coach tramples and kills a small peasant child, only to have him blame the peasants for the child's death and for the coach to ride faster, is the main catalyst for Darnay's leaving of France to head to England. Ashamed of his family and the aristocracy altogether, Charles hopes to build a life for himself away from his family's name. Unbeknownst to Darney, his uncle has conspired to have him imprisoned in England as a way of teaching him a lesson...a fate Darney only escapes with the help of a cynical lawyer named Sydney Carton, played by Ronald Colman. A drunk who manages to maintain a keen mind even as he squanders his considerable potential, Carton befriends Charles and Lucie and becomes an intricate part of their world.
What follows is less a story of the horrors of the Reign of Terror, and more about the love of two men for the same woman, and how love can bring about redemption even in the worst of times. This culminates of perhaps the greatest act of self-sacrifice in not only cinema, but all of literature.
The movie is carried by the amazing performance by Ronald Colman as Sydney Carton. While some of the characters lack depth in the movie (Lucie is always good and kind, Darnay is always idealistic to a fault, the Marquis is evil and cruel to the point of being a caricature), Colman's portrayal of Sydney is layered. He transforms on the screen, early as someone only interested in sarcastic and drunk, self-destructive almost to the point of self-loathing. Later, through his time with Lucie, he is romantic and loving, both for Lucie and her daughter, leading to his final selfless act. Sydney Carton moves the story, as while there are events of change around him, he is the only character to actually change.
Take, for example, two of the more impressive performances in the movie. Miss Pross (played by the very talented Edna May Oliver) is witty and loyal, and even as she contributes to one of the climactic moments of the movie, she does so because she is unwavering. Her counterpart, Madame Defarge (played by Blanche Yurka), is vengeful and hateful from the start...it is only the circumstances of the Revolution that allow her to act upon her desires. Together they create quite possibly the best scene in the movie before the end, but they do so with no growth in depth or character. They do so because of their convictions that they refuse to set aside.
Carried by these and other strong performances, the movie never seems to take a breath. Even though it clocks in at 128 minutes, it not only feels shorter but leaves you wanting for more. The action sequences are superb, topped by the scene of the storming of the Bastille, as French peasants and soldiers come together in a common goal of revolution. After watching the scene, I couldn't help thinking of the end of the Battleship Potemkin, and how the at the last moment the Russian forces joined with rebels...I don't know if the symmetry was intended, but I felt it nonetheless.
All in all, A Tale of Two Cities is a fantastic movie, with strong acting and great production. I'd highly recommend for anyone to give it a shot.
"It is a far, far better thing I do than I have ever done. It is a far, far better rest I go to than I have ever known"...4 out of 4 stars
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