A Tale of Two Cities (1980)

A Tale of Two Cities (1980) Poster

Let’s take a romp through literature again, shall we?

“The Count of Monte-Cristo” (covered here: http://wp.me/p2PoxU-8G and the incorrect spelling is theirs, not mine) was done as a two-hour telemovie.  How?  How does a book most people use as a doorstop due to its size, get so shortened?  Well, in that case, it was pre-miniseries, in the official sense.

Just as voluminous as Dumas, or, to be fair, more so, is Charles Dickens.  I have always found “A Tale of Two Cities” to be the oddest of all Dickens novels because it neither reads like nor has the feel of his other novels.  Most of Dickens’ books are long tales of small events.  But to take on the French Revolution, one of the two biggest events the world had in the 18th Century (if you need to ask the other, you just failed history) doesn’t seem like Dickens.  Where will we put the decaying fossil characters or the urchins?

Out of character as the book may be for Dickens, it’s a boon for anyone who reads it because it’s one literature’s finest accomplishments.  Yet, this “A Tale of Two Cities” is not quite three hours.  How?

Honestly, very well.  As with the Dumas piece, talented writers did not attempt to carve a script and fit it to their own needs, but they used the text itself and Dickens’ cues to point the way to a wonderfully abridged version.  Sure, a British miniseries would have done it exactly as written and presented it over 826 hours, or so you would think, because there was a British version done in 1989 that is about the same length as this version.

Dickens gaining an hour on Dumas is not a fluke.  In the few years between their presentations, the American miniseries movement started.  “Rich Man, Poor Man” and “Roots” were already behind us, so you see a maturation here.  Network executives were still hedging a bit because we are still early in the lifecycle.  The two miniseries noted were as “American” as it gets, and “the classics” have no association with “American.”  Plus, it’s history, it’s costumes, that was all still a bit twee for Americans, who prefer robust epics of only our history.  That would change, but not yet.

In discussing “A Tale of Two Cities” over the years with people, one question keeps popping up: I know it’s about Paris, because of the guillotine and blood, but what’s the other city?

If you are asking, you’ve never read the book.  But, to be fair, every movie version of the story contributes to that question.  Including this one, which is very solid and beautifully handled.  Maybe it’s the sets, maybe the costumes, the accents, who knows?  And the plot itself does sit more heavily in Paris.  However, just as there is no “best of times” without the “worst of times,” there is no Paris without London.  If you don’t want to slog through Dickens, read the much shorter “Scarlet Pimpernel,” where the heroes are stout wonderful Londoners (friends of royalty) and victims are downtrodden Parisians.

Keep that all in mind, because I didn’t start with a lesson just to show off my considerable and enviable knowledge.  I wouldn’t do that, pshaw!

Since “A Tale of Two Cities” is such a well-known property, I will use the names of the characters instead of the actors as I usually do when discussing fiction.

We start with death in Paris.  A French aristocrat, the Marquis St. Evremond (Barry Morse) having just left Versailles, runs over a child and kills him.  “It is extraordinary to me that you people cannot take care of yourselves, or your children.  Always in the way.  I have no idea what injury you may have done to my horses,” the obnoxious bewigged carps.  With that attitude, is it any wonder there was a revolution?  Both Monsieur Defarge (Norman Jones) and Madame Defarge (Billie Whitelaw), seethe with this display, which is accompanied by two coins tossed at the father of the dead kid.

With that, the narrator reads the opening lines of Dickens against a montage of the wealthy being wasteful and tacky and the poor just trying to slog through.  Across the English Channel, in Dover, Dr. Jarvis Lorry (Kenneth More) is seeking Lucy Manette (Alice Krige), who is being chaperoned by Miss Pross (the great Flora Robson in one hell of a hat).  The news he has causes her to faint: her father, imprisoned unjustly in France, is not dead.  In fact, he’s currently resting at the Defarge wine shop.

To Paris the trio goes, sneered at the whole time they are there by Madame Defarge, knitting needles in hand.  Dr. Manette (Peter Cushing) seems to have lost his mind, but his identity, referring to himself by his prison cell number.  He doesn’t recognize Lorry and believes Lucy to be “the jailer’s daughter).  He only remembers her because the lock of her hair he has kept for years matches Lucy’s.

When Charles Darnay (Chris Sarandon) comes to tell St. Evremonde that he’s leaving France, dropping a load of invective on his uncle, the latter chirps, “fear and slavery keep the scum obedient” as a retort to Darnay’s insistence that France is on the verge of revolution.  Darnay supports it, he would rather go to England a pauper rather than watch events unfold in Paris.  “I hope never to see you again,” he roars, refuses to take along a servant who begs to go, promising him he will never allow harm to come his way.  A tail is sent to report on his moves.

Darnay is taking the same boat as the Menettes and Lorry.  Darnay relinquishes his title and money.

Nine months later, Darnay is on trial in London for being a spy.  Dr Manette gives testimony that he doesn’t remember Darnay as he was not quite sane at the time.  So, Lucy is called and positively identifies Darnay as her fellow passenger, and though Lucy saw him exchange papers, which the Crown thinks are spying documents, but were actually the papers of relinquishment.  However, Barsad (David Suchet), the tail put on Darnay, readily testifies to him being a spy.

Part of the defense team is Sydney Carton (also Chris Sarandon), a rumbled and lazy man who looks hungover during the trial.  However, it’s Carton’s idea to show how eerily he and Darnay look alike and Barsad is forced to admit they look alike and he can’t be assure if it was actually Darnay he saw.  This is responsible for Darnay being found innocent.

Because Chris Sarandon is a good actor and because the script has no desire to waste time on inside jokes, when Darnay tells Carton he doesn’t see their resemblance, it’s obvious he means it.  The two go out to a pub where Carton drinks himself into another rambling stupor, which Darnay is quiet and reserved.  They toast to “Miss Manette,” whom Carton has fallen for as well.  “An angel like this is worth giving up a life of dissipation for,” Carton drunkenly slurs. Darnay finds Carton’s boozing way too gluttonous, but so does Carton.  “The only thing I do in moderation is work,” he quips, before showing how worthless he feels he is in saying, “I care for no man and no man cares for me.”  There is no sense of embarrassment at this on Carton’s part.

Darnay and Lucy are falling in love, under the watchful and stern eye of Miss Pross, who reminds Darnay to walk with Lucy in her line of vision.  When Miss Pross sees them possible about to kiss, she obnoxiously rings a bell to end that possibility.  A few scenes later, it’s Carton shows up at the Manette residence to invite her to an event, clearly smitten, though Lucy can barely hide her repulsion.  At that moment, Darnay is asking for Lucy’s hand in marriage in a most bizarre manner, telling Dr. Manette that he is afraid to ask for her hand because he does not want to cause the father-daughter relationship.  Manette gives his approval, but when Darnay tries to give his real name, Dr. Manette silences him; he doesn’t want to hear it until after their wedding.

There is a third suitor for Lucy, as vapid and bland onscreen as she is in the book, which has always struck me as an odd decision from Dickens.  Stryver (Nigel Hawthorne), Carton’s law partner seems to think he has a chance, causing huge guffaws from Carton.  Carton and Stryver are glum at the party where Dr. Manette announced the engagement of Lucy and Darnay.  Stryver can’t understand how this happened.  “Perhaps I should have made my intentions known sooner,” he ruminates to Carton, a small comic bit that shows his utter cluelessness.

Over in Paris, the father of the boy killed under St. Evremonde’s wheels, and who killed the awful man as he slept, is being hung.  Madame Defarge dryly opines that nobody will miss St. Evremonde, and that’s the consensus of the crowd gathered.  Barsad winds up in the Defarge establishment and asks what it is Madame is knitting.  “A shroud…I may find use for it one day,” she says.  The Defarges are cagey with their answers when Barsad asks yeah-I’m-a-spy questions, but when the Defarges find out Lucy is marrying Darnay, their anger is obvious.  “He’s called Charles Darnay, but he’s an Evremonde, make no mistake,” Barsad notes, doing his best to set any possible trap he can.  Once he leaves, Madame Defarge notes his “destiny” will find him where he should be and “we shall be waiting.”  They hate Darnay only because he’s Evremondy’s nephew, knowing nothing else of a man who would support their cause sooner than the other side’s.

It’s wedding day for Darnay and Lucy.  There is a bizarre lapse in dialogue continuity here.  As Darnay is explaining his past to Lucy and her father, he says to Dr. Manette, “I tried to tell you, long before this,” and though he did, Dr. Manette had actually requested to hear the truth on the wedding day, but after.  When Dr. Manette hears his true last name, St. Evremonde, his physical reaction shows it’s a name he knows well.

Were all of the extras in town busy doing something else?  Except for the few characters we have met, there is barely anyone in the church, though Carton is sulking in the last pew.  Miss Pross summons Dr. Lorry because “he doesn’t know me, Dr. Manette doesn’t know me,” and he’s reverted to making shoes, the one thing that kept him alive in prison.  This may be the strongest overreaction to a marriage in all of literature.  The lovers aren’t doing any better.  In the nuptial bed, they talk about Carton: she wants to help him and her new hubby knows Carton loves Lucy.

The next morning, Lorry returns to find Dr. Manette completely recovered from his shoe-making schizophrenia.  Dr. Lorry suggests Dr. Manette get rid of his tools, he agrees, so Dr. Lorry and Miss Pross burn all of it.

Five years later, Lucy and Darnay have a daughter and everyone is cozy in bright sunny weather, even as they talk of worsening conditions in France.  Carton arrives, thanking Lucy for letting him pay visits and she replies that “you’re like a member of the family to us.”  Carton explains that he cannot change his ways, it’s too late for that because he loves Lucy and cannot have her.  At her suggestion that he use “affection for me to some good account,” he replies with a promise that he will make any sacrifice he can for her and her family. “I would gladly give my life,” he tells her.

It’s July 14 in Paris and you know what that means, we’re storming the Bastille.  The Defarges are front and center when the mob descends on the poorly manned prison (what’s not explained here is why–it was also used as an armory, though they found less than they expected).  Madame Defarge is, as always, particularly bloodthirsty, trading her knitting needles for a pistol, and delighting in killing people at close range, including the head of the fortress.  “It has come.  It has come at last,” Defarge says to her.  She shrugs her shoulders and says, “it is only the beginning,” with a laugh that would make anyone nervous.

A montage proves that.  We see aristocrats at meals, in carriages, at dances, and without a warning, the growing mobs interrupt them, beating, killing, maiming, raping and destroying everything in sight.  In London, Lorry tells Darnay he’s going to Paris because as an English citizen and a businessman, nothing will happen to him.  However, when Darnay reads him a letter from that servant he couldn’t take when he left France, it is to learn that all the St. Evremonde servants have been arrested simply because they were servants in that house.  What they say after that is particularly telling of their backgrounds.

“There’s nothing you can do, of course,” says Lorry, ever practical, ever British, ever displaying sang-froid.

“I must go to Paris…if there is anything I can do to save this man, I must go,” replies Darnay, ever impulsive, ever French, ever displaying an inability to act with caution.

Darnay tells Lorry he will go to Paris because, “I have no other course,” though Lorry begs him to think of his family.  That’s not a consideration in his feverish state, and he begs Lorry not to tell his family where he want, fully confident he will not be harmed and back home lickety-split.  Nothing says “try to blend in” than a swooshing cape, a massive hat and very expensive clothing, but Darnay has it all as he flies out the door, leaving a note for Lucy.  Darnay is stopped on his way to Paris, where he learns it’s far worse than he expected.  Voluntarily returning to France makes no difference.  Once an aristocrat, always an aristocrat.  He is tossed into prison, finding that “aristocrats have no rights!”

Taking him to prison is an unlikely “friend,” Defarge.  Dr. Manette is a hero to the revolution, so Defarge is sympathetic to the great man’s son-in-law, but Defarge has to know, “why in the name of heaven and hell did you come back here?”  Darnay realizes this is his last chance to get word to London about the situation and asked Defarge to contact Lorry, simply to tell him he’s been imprisoned.  “I will do nothing for you.  My duty is to my people and my country,” is Defarge’s cagey reply.  It’s a well-acted scene, and probably one that Dickens would have enjoyed because it’s impossible to know whether Defarge will be helping or destroying him.

Once they reach La Force prison, take note of the direction.  The camera stays at everyone’s feet.  It shows ragged shoes on everyone, except Darnay’s polished and buckled pair.  Then, as they march up the steps, not only does each step get progressively dirtier, but rats are on view.  In this simple trip up a staircase, it’s obvious that Darnay’s life is about to change immediately for the worse.  His cell is filled with vermin, and his white starched shirt is the only thing in the cell that is not covered in grime, age and slop.

Lorry’s flunky finds out Darnay is in prison, so it’s Lorry’s task to tell Lucy and Dr. Manette in a letter.  Dr. Manette insists he will go to Paris.  “They know me.  They know what I endured at the hands of the nobility.  They will listen to me,” he assures Lucy.  Lucy insists on going, as if we didn’t expect that twist.  Quicker than you can say Eurostar, the Manettes are in Paris, where Lorry urges Dr. Manette to talk to the mob immediately.  He shouts his story and it seems he’s won the crowd, who carry him to the prison.

All is not right.  When the Defarges show up at Lorry’s, offering to take Lorry to Dr. Manette, there is something very off.  Lucy begs Madame Defarge to help her, as one wife to another, but the ever speechifying dirty-encrusted knitter, halts her, asking “do you think the trouble of one wife means anything to us now?”

Nothing, which is all anyone is willing to do.  Dr. Manette finds his 16-year prison sentence something that can wow a crowd, the authorities are unimpressed and decide Darnay stays a prisoner, but he will get a trial “sometime in the future.”  All he can is wait until the trial, if it ever happens, testify, remind everyone his captivity and hope.  Neither Dr. Manette nor Dr. Lorry believe it’s going to be that simple.

Lucy and her daughter go to the prison and wave furiously to Darnay, who waves to them, though dejected.  A mini mob sweeps past, with Madame Defarge in tow.  “I salute you, Citizeness,” she says to Lucy, who replies the same.  “We’ll see tomorrow,” Madame Defarge with all the rancor she can summon.

Eventually, there is a trial.  It pretend to be a trial, but the scary woman playing with a toy guillotine in the front row is a damn good clue it’s a mere formality.  I could bore you with some French history here, but anyone interested can call me later.  Darnay reminds the court he gave up his title and wealth, as well as reminded them he wanted to help a citizen, though the poor guy has already been disposed of.

There is a level of tact in this version of “A Tale of Two Cities” that is rather surprising.  The American miniseries so often played with the rules, but in this shortened version, there is simply a story to tell.  There is very little preaching and it’s not noticeably connected to current events of the time.  So, Darnay says very little, as does Dr. Manette, though longtime scene-stealer (yup, the slumming vet, though this is a fine place to be slumming) Peter Cushing knows how to play a courtroom scene, brief though it is.  It all works.  Darnay is found not guilty and freed.

Oh, we’re not done yet!  No, no, no.  “It won’t be long now,” Madame Defarge says with almost sexual climax.  After all, she has Dr. Manette’s diary from his prison years.  Her husband is visibly uncomfortable knowing she has it, but that won’t stop her.

“A Tale of Two Cities” does now and then take an odd turn.  Miss Pross’ speech about the “savages” of France ends with a “God save the king,” referring to George III, whom just about no one respected by this time is way out of place in this fast-moving version.  Hunched over and clearly failing physically, Flora Robson also knows how to do this kind of scene to perfection, though this isn’t quite the end of her career either.

Miss Pross’ tirade is there because as soon as it’s over, said savages come bolting through the door to arrest Darnay again, refusing to say anything other than that the Defarges “and one other” have accused him.  Carton arrives at Lorry’s to find there is no hope for Darnay, not even from God!  “Then perhaps the devil” can be of assistance, he suggests, meaning, of course, his gloomy old self.    Conveniently, it’s Barsad, who lied at Darnay’s trial back in England, who is a jailer, but “once a spy, always a spy,” so Carton and Lorry decide to use him.  Barsad can hardly refuse their plan since he did once work for an aristocrat.  A simple denouncement was enough for death at this point in the revolution.  All Carton asks for is one visit with Darnay, and Barsad has no choice but to agree.

It’s not that we don’t know the ending already or can’t see it coming, the excitement of the final portion of the movie is seeing it happen, and so far, “A Tale of Two Cities” has done that very well.  Carton throws a glass of sherry into the fire, so we know something big is up!

The announcement that Dr. Manette has accused Darnay leads to hysteria in the court, but the show belongs to Madame Defarge, who reminds the world why Dr. Manette was jailed and then reads from his diary where he cursed the entire Evremonde family.  “Save him now, good doctor, save him now,” she says as she passes Dr. Manette, loving, as always, to repeat her words.  On this evidence alone, the jury finds Darnay guilty and worthy of beheading, and Madame Defarge has a new reason to knit.

Darnay gets a tearful last scene with Lucy and her father, which gets us a faint out of Lucy.  Carton is there to scoop her up.

But Madame Defarge is drunk and happy.  She intends to make Darnay’s daughter the next victim.  “To the last of their race,” she reminds her husband, quoting Dr. Manette’s denunciation.  Why?  Oh, because it was Madame Defarge’s sister who died at the hands of the original Evremonde, thus sending Dr. Manette to jail.

It’s a beautifully sunny day for a slew of executions.  Carton is given access to Darnay by Barsad.  Without really understanding the plan, Darnay changes clothes with Carton, who knocks him out with a powerful potion.  Barsad, in on the plan, takes Darnay out.  The leads are then safely spirited away with no one the wiser.  Madame Defarge, planning now to entrap Lucy, heads to the Manette house, where all but Miss Pross and Lorry’s assistant Cruncher (George Innes remain).  She leaves her knitting with a friend, assuring she will be at the guillotine as always, even more excited.

Only Miss Pross is there to argue with Madame Defarge, whom she calls a “wicked foreign woman” among other slurs.  The two grapple with a gun, and somehow the 900-year old Miss Pross is standing at the end, Madame Defarge dead.  “I feel there has been a crash, and now a stillness, a stillness for the rest of my life,” Miss Pross tells Cruncher as they head back to Miss Pross’ beloved England.  Okay, Dickens lays it on a bit thick there, and so does the movie, but Dickens was writing this decades later, with the British Empire still powerful and France swinging back and forth for most of the 19th Century.

If the opening sentences of “A Tale of Two Cities” are known by all, even if they don’t know why, so is the finale, one of the finest death scenes ever written.  Carton-as-Darnay, is kind to a simple seamstress afraid of what is to come.  He keeps her steady on their ride to the guillotine, as angry citizens hurl epithets and fruit at them.  Even as other prisoners are being beheaded, Carton-as-Darnay insists the seamstress look only at him.  She is the last prisoner except for Carton-as-Darnay.  “’tis a far far better that I do than I have ever done.  ’tis a far far better rest that I go to than I have ever known,” Carton says, a simple declaration of love and truth that has clanged loudly down the ages.  However, it is almost perfunctory here.  Other versions make it into a rousing cheer, but the authorities would have have let a prisoner do that.  No one hears it, except for the guards, or perhaps Lucy, having just read the letter he left for her in Darnay’s jacket.  Not literally, of course.

So, our Cliffs’ Notes miniseries are getting better.  More extravagant and longer.  We’re definitely working up to something here.

Categories: Adventure Miniseries

2 Comments to “A Tale of Two Cities (1980)”

  1. dude 15 April 2017 at 11:08 pm #

    This is a very Easter-like story. Do you think maybe God let Carton prevail because he’s a virgin?

    • Bj Kirschner 17 April 2017 at 9:25 pm #

      It’s certainly possible. Dickens wasn’t big on religion in many of his works and the miniseries keeps to the more swashbuckling portions, but you may be on to something!