Judge Roman Martel awaits the Masterpiece Theater presentation of Ethel the Aardvark Goes Quantity Surveying.
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.
It's always a challenge bringing a world famous novel to the screen, especially one that is so familiar and beloved by so many readers (and literature professors). You have to admire Mr. Arthur Hopcraft for taking on adaptation duties for this version of A Tale of Two Cities. He had a couple things in his favor. First, this miniseries gave him a little over three hours to work with. Second, he had the full power of Masterpiece Theater behind him.
This version begins with Dr. Alexandre Manette (Jean-Pierre Aumont, Day for Night) locked away in the Bastille, writing an angry missive denouncing the men who falsely accused him, as well their heirs. Jump forward 18 years and his lovely daughter, Lucie (Serena Gordon, The House of Mirth), arrives to take him to London after he has been "restored to life." Along the way, they meet the dashing young Charles Darnay (Xavier Deluc, Section de recherches) who treats both father and daughter with kindness.
Alas, upon arriving in London, things go poorly for Darnay when he is accused of treason against the crown. Luckily, some quick thinking by the brooding Sydney Carton (James Wilby, Gosford Park) saves his life. Darnay is grateful, but Carton feigns disinterest. In truth, he has fallen hopelessly in love with Lucie. As the years pass, Darnay and Lucie fall in love and marry, as Carton watches from the sidelines. But the past is going to catch up to all of them. The French Revolution explodes and a secret that Darnay is hiding is going to put both men into dire situations.
My two paragraph summary doesn't do A Tale of Two Cities justice. With its multiple subplots, myriad of supporting characters, and twists of fate, the tale lives up to its Dickensian descriptor. Director Philippe Monnier (Coupable) has extensive experience with television movies and does a good job here. The pacing is a little on the slow side, but you don't mind too much because his camera has so much to capture. The sets and costumes are very detailed and authentic. There's plenty of location shooting as well, adding to the scope of the film, as well as providing lovely shots of the French and English countrysides.
The performances are uniformly good. A predominantly French cast is used for the French characters in the film. In cases where UK actors step into French roles, they provide pretty convincing accents. I'm always impressed with actors who are able to perform well in other languages.
As good as the production elements are, I never found myself completely engaged by the film, primarily because the emotional core of the story never resonates. For this, I blame the adaptation. The finale of A Tale of Two Cities has to deliver a solid emotional blow. The climax hinges on the sacrifice of one character for the others. When madame guillotine comes crashing down, we are to feel a mixture of sadness and release, but I didn't feel much of anything. I can't blame the actors, they do as well as they can with their roles. The sad fact is we don't spend enough time with a key character, so when the climax arrives, it feels hollow.
In the end, the run time is what hurt this adaptation. 194 minutes is too short to flesh out all the characters, but just long enough for an ambitious creator to incorporate some of the subplots and moments usually passed over in a two hour film. As a result, the key character ends up getting less screen time than he deserves.
BFS presents A Tale of Two Cities across two discs. The full frame transfer doesn't look too bad for a late '80s made for television production. There is some print damage and a softness to the picture, especially in the outdoor scenes, which is typical of the era. This may have been the best source materials available. The Dolby 2.0 stereo is handled well with dialogue sounding clear and Serge Franklin's moving score coming through nicely. Sadly no extras are included. I would have loved a bit more information about how this British/French co-production evolved.
While it may not be the best adaptation of A Tale of Two Cities, it makes for a solid weekend of entertainment for fans of costume dramas. Just don't expect this version to deliver a powerful ending in quite the way it should.
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