Charles Dickens’ literary classics have been adapted into countless films. The movies vary in many degrees with how faithful they are to Dickens’ constant use of Christian allegory and symbolism. Jack Conway’s version of A Tale of Two Cities follows the pattern better than any other Dickens adaptation I know of. It works as seamlessly as it does in Dickens’ work, always keeping a natural feel, never seeming tacked on to reflect the worldview of the novel’s author but to reflect all the nuances of the world created within the masterpiece of that author instead.
Ronald Colman plays Sydney, an alcoholic who is very perceptive of the world around him but too wounded by his own past to see any hope for his own role in the world. As a lawyer, he finds himself unwillingly thrown into the middle of the social upheaval of the French Revolution. He is surprisingly successful in his abilities to defend his client while highly intoxicated. His client Charles, played by Donald Woods, tries to befriend Sydney after the trial only to be sorely rejected by Sydney out of jealousy for Donald’s fiancee, Lucie (Elizabeth Allan).
Lucie invites Sydney to church on Christmas. He’s drunk of course. We watch his face as the congregation sings “O Come All Ye Faithful.” Although no words are spoken, we see a longing in him that is inexplicably moved by the singing of the carol. It is not a longing for Lucie (though he certainly still has that), but it is a longing for hope, purpose, and love. In an earlier scene, he explains to Charles that he drinks because it is only way of attempting to regain all the things he’s lost in life. He knows that it doesn’t work but he has no hope for any real way to escape the haunting of past.
The change that we see in Sydney at that Christmas service is the catalyst for his deepest desire. He learns how to love. The rest of the movie (about the second half), we watch this unfold. He is devastated by Lucie and Charles’ marriage, but he makes a promise to Lucie that overrides all of his personal feelings. We watch his attitude towards Lucie and Charles slowly change from lust and envy to a willingness to give of himself, to sacrifice for them and eventually for their child. This takes shape in his protection of the family as they continue to be in danger due to the events of the French Revolution.
I have focused solely on the one character in this review, yet A Tale of Two Cities, is a story of many complex characters in the throws of the Revolution. I have focused on the one because it is through him that the generalities and wide spectrum of Dickens’ story become personal and intimate. The movie, though, like Dickens’ novel fleshes out every character beautifully. The heroes are hurt people, fighting for their lives, not always acting heroic. We are able to sympathize with some of the villains, knowing that their villainy is the result of their own hurt. But then there are other villains who represent all the greed and corruption that caused the French Revolution.
This movie brings out the most possible of Dickens’ portrayal of Sydney’s transformation from self-centeredness to love of humanity in the midst of a world where such love is scarce. This was probably precisely the reason for Dickens’ opening line (“It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.”) which appears in writing in the opening scene of the movie. Although the story is set in a specific time and place, it is a story about humanity in general, about the power of mercy and repentance but also about the evils of indifference and selfishness that make mercy and repentance necessary for all generations and in all places.