Time for the latest entry in our "actor vs. actor" series! (Previous entries, by Christy and Nina, are here and here.) This time, I'm comparing the actors who played Sydney Carton in the four major adaptations of A Tale of Two Cities. Carton, as our regular readers know, is my favorite literary character, and I'm inclined to be quite fussy about how he's portrayed. Did any of these four actors measure up to my exacting standards? Read on and find out!
Not for nothing was Ronald Colman one of the top matinee idols of the '30s and '40s. The man had looks, talent, and charisma to burn, and he brought all those things to his celebrated portrayal of Sydney Carton in 1935.
Colman is the best known Carton, in fact, and with good reason. He's charming. Perhaps, at times, just a mite too charming. He speaks his lines with a gallant little air of world-weariness that is appealing and effective, but not exactly the way most readers of the book would imagine the cynical Carton speaking. Even when slumping down on the table in a stupor, Colman never quite takes us to the depths of his character's despair.
Nonetheless, he has some truly wonderful moments. A haunted look in his eyes in certain scenes is indescribably moving, and conveys more emotion than pages of his dialogue. If his performance isn't as multifaceted as I would like -- and as I said, I'm a stickler -- it's nonetheless a fine and touching one.
One of the first things that strikes you about Dirk Bogarde's Sydney Carton, from the British film made in 1958, is that he's a total smart-aleck. He can scarcely enter or exit a room without a sardonic quip. Fortunately, that's not all there is to him -- not by a long shot.
For at the same time he's being a smart-aleck, Bogarde manages to show the sensitivity and the pain beneath Carton's flippant facade, and his struggle to hide them. He's falling-down drunk when he confesses his love to Lucie, and while that's decidedly non-Dickensian -- "he never went there heated with wine," the book tells us -- somehow it works here, because we can easily believe that this Carton could never bring himself to share his feelings without being thoroughly plastered. Drunk or sober, his interactions with Lucie are sweet and poignant (and I find it a shame that this film alters the timeline so that he never gets to meet and interact with little Lucie).
It's a rich, complex performance, and one that deserves to be much better known than it is. The 1958 film currently isn't even available on DVD in the U.S. I can only hope that omission is remedied one of these days and that more people get to see this splendid portrayal of Sydney Carton.
Chris Sarandon, from the 1980 miniseries, is the only one of these actors to play both Carton and Darnay -- and in an odd way, this ends up working against him. To help differentiate the two characters, his Carton is made to appear so bleary, bloated, and blotchy that he's downright repellent. Nor does it help that most of the time, he maintains a dour expression, with his chin sunk down and his lips pushed out in a particularly unappealing way.
The thing is, Sarandon isn't a bad actor at all -- in fact, he makes a very good Charles Darnay (not that he ever tries for a French accent, but neither do any of the other French characters). But as Carton he seems to have been allowed little chance to show his talent. If Colman had a shade too much charisma, Sarandon could have used several bucketloads more.
The role is poorly written here, too, especially in the first half of the movie, when he makes a few actual tries at winning Lucie's hand. The key to Sydney Carton's character, or at least one of the biggest keys, is that he feels completely unworthy of Lucie. This cannot be effectively portrayed by having him ask the girl to a regatta. (To a regatta? Who the heck would invite Carton to a regatta in the first place? He's not exactly Society's Pet.)
And then, just when you're getting used to the idea that he's going to be unendingly morose . . . there's the part where he romps with little Lucie in the garden. Actually romps. It's ghastly. It's as if the filmmakers deliberately set out to hit every wrong note with his characterization.
Now and then Sarandon shows a flash of humor or a moment of feeling that genuinely fits the role -- especially notable are a couple of moving moments with the seamstress -- but for the most part it's a disappointingly one-note portrayal.
James Wilby's performance in the 1989 BBC miniseries generally seems to be considered second best, after Colman's. He does play the role quite capably, and yet I have to confess I didn't find his performance especially memorable. Unlike Sarandon, he manages to hit most of the right notes at the right times -- sluggish, competent, mocking, and tender by turns -- and yet few of those notes make a particularly weighty impression. Concealing most of his emotions behind the perpetual half-smile on his face (though he does use his voice well), this Carton ultimately remains a shadowy, unknowable figure.
I'll give Wilby this much: He has the most appropriate hair of any of these actors. Colman and Bogarde both wear their hair too short -- though they get to wear cute little hats to make up for it -- and Sarandon's hair looks as if it hasn't been washed or brushed since he was born. On the whole, Wilby probably captures the look of Carton better than any of the others.
In the final analysis: I feel a bit of a renegade for saying it, as Colman's performance is so famous and so (justly) lauded, but I would have to give Bogarde the edge. His emotional range in the role is unsurpassed. Also, in my opinion, he comes closest to getting the mood of the final scenes right. I say "closest" because, although all four actors do themselves credit at the end, I don't think any of them gets it exactly right. Of course, that means that there's plenty of room for another actor to come along and give us a new Carton, if we should be so fortunate as to see another production any time soon . . .
[Note: If you would like to write an entry for the "actor vs. actor" series about a Dickensian character you like, please leave a comment here, and I'll consider your idea.]