“A Tale of Two Cities”,
the 1958 film directed by Ralph Thomas and starring Dirk Bogarde
(based on the novel by Charles Dickens)
A video presentation of these notes is available here
“A Tale of Two Cities” is set during the time of the French Revolution, and tells a tale of that revolution, the injustices that led to it, the violent revolt against those injustices, and the stirring into action of Sydney Carton, a lawyer who becomes embroiled in the affairs of the woman he loves and her French aristocrat husband.
Sydney Carton is very much a cynical, dissolute figure at the start of the film. His life appears to be devoid of purpose, focus, principle, inspiration or belief. Dickens makes him a lawyer and he is therefore one who is used to machinations and arguments produced to deliver a desired effect – his objective is not so much to fight for principle as to fashion an intellectual argument to best his opponents. Carton has no need to invest himself in his cases – he is there to do a job for the self-seeking. He is one who contributes mindlessly to what he seems to regard as mindless word games and the pointless pitching of intellectual argument to further one’s case. His very name, Carton, means “cardboard” in French and thereby suggests a two-dimensional figure who fits perfectly into this flexible and adaptable profession which manages to avoid commitment to the causes it presents, rather like those who live life as observers rather than participants or contributors.
However, there may be more to Sydney Carton than immediately meets the eye. He is not satisfied with simply fulfilling his function – he passes cutting remarks and drinks to excess, suggesting a clarity of thought and understanding which allows him to see himself and others for what they are, and he appears disappointed in what he finds which leads to consolation in drink and mockery of those around him.
The injustice of the perceived or claimed superiority of the aristocracy is embedded in the very laws of the nation, leading not just to abuse and taking advantage of fellow human beings, but worse still, a complete indifference to the fate of their fellow countrymen in terms of act, speech and attitude.
There is a depiction of terrible poverty, hardship and injustice at the hands of this indifferent aristocracy who, convinced of their own superiority, failed to comprehend the vital link between the wealthy and impoverished, or the governors and the governed.
Feelings run high and wrongs are done in the name of justice – in a natural desire to do away with abuse that has become systematised, individuals’ merits are not taken in to account and generalisation of blame leads to the taking of relatively innocent lives.
Tragedy is deepened through understanding and sympathy for both “sides”. We certainly understand the motivation and deep desire for retribution among the rebels, yet we readily recognise the profound injustices being committed in the name of equality and fairness. Violence may be required if legal and moral measures fail, or if injustice (any favouring of one group over another) is inherent in the legal system and culture.
Dr Manette stood up against the tyranny of the Marquis St. Evremonde who has caused the death of one member of a family of serfs and is accustomed to abusing other members of the same family. When Manette helps the family out of common humanity, he pays an awful price by being sent to the Bastille through the influence of Evremonde. His daughter Lucy and servant Defarge escape.
Some eighteen years later, Manette is freed and is reunited with his loving and devoted daughter, Lucy, who acts unselfishly out of principle.
Charles Darnay, the cousin of the afore-mentioned Marquis St. Evremonde, previously left France to settle in England, opting out of the unjust French system of aristocracy to build his own life. Lucy is instantly attracted to Darnay, though she is unaware of his roots, and their relationship matures into marriage. Darnay, however, is due to pay the price of his fellow aristocrats’ behaviour as he is arrested and tried not so much for his own actions, but for the actions of the aristocracy on the whole and the “citizens” wish to put an end to the aristocrats’ blood-line and tyranny.
Sydney Carton has also fallen for Lucy’s charms, however, and this brings about a change and development in his character.
Sydney is attracted by something far greater than mere physical beauty – Lucy’s inner beauty. Her devotion to her father, her care for the fate of French citizens, her expression of a desire for change and a willingness to think for herself and challenge the status quo – all are qualities he clearly finds appealing (though he may not express such an opinion). Interestingly, it is once again as an observer rather than a participant that Sydney gleans information and an opinion of Lucy, as a fellow traveller in a coach.
He is undoubtedly attracted to her engagement and commitment, and a willingness to fight for a cause, which would, I think, appeal to Sydney’s underlying and latent sense of principle. Sadly, Sydney has turned his clarity of thought and cynicism on himself. He sees he is worth no more than those he dismisses and mocks. He recognises his own role in the grand scheme of role-playing and self-advancement, but then he finds someone and something to believe in – someone worthy, but of whom he feels he is unworthy.
Yet love does not need to be reciprocated if it is truly unselfish and based on admiration.
Through Lucy, Sydney recognises the worth of Dr Manette and Charles Darnay, inspiring him to make his contribution to their cause by making the ultimate self-sacrifice, allowing those he loves and admires for their strength of principle and cause to continue their lives and fight. This “rebirth”, or awakening, suggests that change is always possible in man, though inspiration may be required.
Published at roughly the same time as “Les Misérables”, I am struck by a variety of similarities between the two works – love and devotion as a source of redemption and inspiration for action, the setting against a background of sacrifice and revolt against injustice, fighting for a selfless cause involving social injustice, and the challenging of social / political / philosophical thought.
I found Ralph Thomas’s direction brisk, engaging and intelligent. Sydney Carton remains relatively unimportant (and unimpressive) in the first half, observing other characters who are much more engaging and absorbing as they act, which makes Sydney’s actions all the more impressive in the second half.
Thomas captured the peasants’ degradation and suffering of social injustice, their desire for change and revenge, yet spurred on by the underlying justice and integrity of their cause.
I did find Dorothy Tutin a little too sweet as Lucy, but I thoroughly enjoyed Dirk Bogarde as Sydney as he gained strength and conviction.
My thanks for taking the time to read this page. Stuart Fernie
I can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org .