`Tale of Two Cities' Puts You In the Heart of History - Despite Built-in Limits

TELEVISION: PREVIEW

A TALE OF TWO CITIES PBS, Sunday, 9-10 p.m. First of four-part `Masterpiece Theatre' dramatization of the Dickens novel. 1. ``It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.''

2. ``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.''

IF you'd like to know what happens between two of the most quoted lines in the English language (No. 1 above opens the and No. 2 closes it), then tune in to this new adaptation of Charles Dickens's sweeping, action-filled epic about the French Revolution.

If you already know the story backward and forward, but yearn for a less sentimentalized, less dated interpretation than those filmed in the past, tune in as well.

Intended as a celebration of the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution, this is the first French/English co-production of the work, involving England's Granada Television and the French Dune and Antenne II. In it, all all the French parts played by French actors.

The production has all the earmarks viewers have come to expect from ``Masterpiece Theatre'': first-rate casting, acting, and direction; highly detailed period costumes and setting; top-flight production values; and original music.

Its most serious weaknesses are the built-in limitations of time (four hours), budget (about 4 million pounds), and setting (sections of Manchester, England, and Bordeaux, France, as cinematic replacements for 1789 London and Paris). These add up to a slightly claustrophobic scale in a story that begs for the Cecil B. DeMille touch.

Nonetheless, the viewer new to ``Tale of Two Cities'' will get an excellent rendering of the key events from what some consider the most influential political novel ever written: the mob storming the Bastille to free prisoners unjustly jailed by the hated aristocracy; the peasants creating their own police state as they try and behead thousands of captured nobles; and the story of a romantic triangle caught in the Revolution's wake.

As seen when the story opens in both London and Paris prior to the Revolution, Dickens's intent was to examine two kinds of lawlessness - the semi-totalitarian variety in France and semi-anarchic type in England. Against this backdrop, it is a story of love and of a family trapped by circumstances that goes under the microscope.

The more universal tale of revolutionary terror - ``idealists'' purging injustice with radical social change - is largely ignored. That point may frustrate longtime Dickens fans or scholars keen to find timeless insights into today's institutionalized totalitarianism, from Pol Pot's Cambodia to Iran after the Shah to the increasingly unsettled Eastern bloc. In trying to un-sentimentalize an epic that almost defines the genre and to distance the production from previous ones, the producers may have oversimplified both character and plot development.

Englishman James Wilby, for instance, who has starred in British productions of ``A Handful of Dust'' and ``Maurice,'' plays doomed hero Sydney Carton with a winning combination of seething desire and wistful powerlessness. But the details of his past - whatever has contributed to the self-loathing and cynicism that underlie his supreme sacrifice - remain unexamined. These details are amply expounded in the book and are the driving force behind its climactic moment.

The same holds for Carton's alter ego, Charles Darnay, played by French actor Xavier DeLuc. Lucid, candid, innocent, Darnay is good to a fault. In one sense, his idiotic confidence leads to the traps that drive the novel. Without more shading and subtlety, however, Darnay risks pushing his characterization toward caricature.

Even so, the problem, more in the directing than the acting. Director Phillipe Monnier has stated he didn't want Lucie Manette to be a typical Dickensian heroine, ``sitting by the fireplace, blowing her nose in a little lacy handkerchief, and weeping silently and saying, `Oh, Papa!''' Unfortunately, his alternative is an essentially one-dimensional waif, whose reactions to both ecstasy and grief are virtually indistinguishable.

Most of these failings can be forgiven, because this ``Tale of Two Cities'' distills a sprawling work to its essence without dragging for a moment. And it successfully transports the viewer from his living room to the heart of a nation's history.

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