Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (February 3, 2021)
Charles Dickens’ classic novel A Tale of Two Cities debuted in 1859. The book earned its first cinematic adaptation in 1911 and saw three more silent film versions before we got this “talkie” edition in 1935.
Set during the French Revolution in the late 18th century, Lucie Manette (Elizabeth Allan) long believed that her father Dr. Alexandre Mannette (Henry B. Walthall) died years earlier. However, it turns out Alexandre was imprisoned in the Bastille and just recently became freed.
As Lucie brings her dad back to England, she meets French aristocrat Charles Darnay (Donald Woods) and they fall in love. Charles feels sympathetic to the poor of France, and that means he runs up against his tyrannical uncle, the Marquis de St. Evremonde (Basil Rathbone).
When the Marquis attempts to frame Charles for treason, alcoholic but skilled barrister Sydney Carton (Ronald Colman) saves him. However, complications arise when Sydney becomes smitten by Lucie and a love triangle forms.
As noted earlier, this 1935 release represents the fifth film version to hit screens. Surprisingly, Tale only received two more theatrical adaptations since then, one in 1958 and one in 1980.
Of course, Tale saw new renditions via other media, with six TV adaptations, for example. However, even those appear to halt after 1989, which makes me wonder why Tale seems to have been largely abandoned as a source of filmed versions.
Perhaps some thought that the 1935 Tale offered a definitive take on the property and any updates would fall short. That seems unlikely, though, for while the 1935 movie works pretty well, it shows room for improvement.
In particular, pacing can become a concern, particularly around the movie’s midpoint. We spent much of the first half with an emphasis on the triangle, but once we get to the French Revolution, the focus shifts.
For a decent chunk of film, Tale seems to forget about its lead characters, as it emphasizes the rebellion in France. We eventually reconnect with Sydney and company, but the movie leaves them off-screen for too long.
Despite that issue, Tale manages to maintain our interest pretty well. The character elements of the first half manage evocative material but avoid sappiness for the most part, largely due to Colman’s performance.
Frankly, Allan and Woods bring little to their roles. They look attractive and serve their parts in a competent manner, but they never create especially involving characters.
Happily, Colman compensates, and since he becomes the lead, this carries a lot of the film. He gives Sydney the right insouciant attitude and risks the temptation to overplay his drunken nature. Colman grounds the movie and manages to connect the various segments well.
Unsurprisingly, Tale tends to feel like a product of its era, and it can come across as excessively theatrical at times. Still, compared to other films from this period, Tale feels relatively subdued, and it manages to reach the emotions found in the source.
All of this adds up to a pretty good adaptation of a classic novel. While I can’t claim Tale dazzles, it becomes a more than competent take on the property.