It’s no surprise that this adaptation begins with that oft-repeated bit of poetic parallelism. “It was the best of times it was the worst of times” etc. Of course, in its abridged format the opening suggests the universal quality of those iconic words. It was a period very much like the present.
The scene is set. What follows are images that prove to be deliciously atmospheric with a loving mixture of British colloquialism and Hollywood storytelling all stirred together in an agreeable period drama.
Perhaps the highest compliment I can pay this film, directed by Jack Conway, is that it manages to capture some of the essence of Dickens’ novel even if it does not wholly enrapture me as the source material did those many years ago in my freshman honors English class.
The beauty of literature is that it allows you to create pictures in your head — to let your imagination run rampant — the magic of film is how it allows for such spectacles to be brought to us visually though they might come out imperfectly. Owing to length and practicality, it cannot completely transcribe every last detail onto the screen resorting to jumps in time and abridging of the text.
In fact, a slight criticism is that the film resorts to title cards too much. Still, there are some inspiring moments including the climactic storming of the Bastille sequences courtesy of that inspired combination of Val Lewton and Jacques Tourneur. It’s simultaneously harrowing and marvelously condenses the sweeping forces of the mob rule’s swift rise during the French Revolution into a matter of brief images that overwhelm with their sheer scope and ferocity.
Also, whether this film succumbs to pure histrionics or is instead an impassioned interpretation of Charles Dickens’ material is up for debate but there is no denying that there is a pleasing texturing to many of the most prominent characterizations.
Though a minor part, Basil Rathbone that legendary villain turns in one of his myriad performances as a heartless French nobleman. Whereas Miss Pross is played with endearing yet resolute defiance by Edna May Oliver. Both Lucie Manette and Charles Darnay exude a certain geniality that we’ve come to attribute to the roles. They are less interesting but necessary for the story to have any magnitude.
The most telling difference in depictions for me was in the character of Mr. Lorry (Charles Gillingwater) likened to a crotchety old coot though Dickens paints a picture of him that feels much more reserved and similarly steadfast. I would know because out of all the many figures, I always resonated with him a man who remained a supporting player but nevertheless reflected fine qualities of loyalty and quiet integrity.
But of course, we must inevitably come to Sydney Carton. In the book, he transforms into our hero coming to the fore among a wide array of other characters but with Ronald Colman undoubtedly the biggest star in our film we are conveniently tipped off to his crucial importance and he is vital to the story.
It could have been all too probable that like The Prisoner of Zenda, Ronald Colman could have taken a double role because (SPOILER ALERT) Dickens’ original novel hinges on the likeness of Charles Darnay and Sydney Carton. But in this case, it’s almost a stroke of good fortune that Colman was only given one part.
In it, Ronald Colman plays the brilliant young solicitor who nevertheless spends most of his evenings with his snout in a bottle wasting so much of his talent toward purposeless diversions. He’s a charming fellow but he seems hardly a person of note. But that’s not the final word.
Colman is aptly able to focus all his energies on the man and he’s further allowed to embody one of the great redemption tales in all of English literature. It seems he knew it too, willingly relinquishing his iconic and beloved mustache in deference to the role which no doubt was one of the defining moments of his career.
There’s also no denying the transcendent themes that course through this narrative and reveal themselves much as we would expect. Because this is a story of ultimate sacrifice and a very overt evocation of the Christ story.
Thus, it seems no small coincidence that as Carton takes part in a selfless act that will define his life the thrills of “Come All Ye Faithful” quietly play in the background. The inference is plain. Though, it’s a political fable as well a spiritual one, Carton’s words are what entrench themselves into the viewer’s consciousness, “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.” Some might vehemently disagree but this is a Christmas film if ever there was one. Because it points to hope even in the darkest times. That’s how those paradoxical lines can stand true. It was the worst of times but also the very best.