TBT: A Tale of Two Cities (1980)


New readers should be made aware that, despite my lifelong study of Victorian literature, I rather dislike the works of Charles Dickens. So it’s no shocker that I hadn’t seen this 1980 adaption of A Tale of Two Cities, though it’s a little surprising that this is one of the few Dickens books I wasn’t forced to read in grad school (where I had an especially Dick-obsessed professor). But Kendra has this crazy idea that we should invade the SF Bay Area’s Dickens Christmas Fair wearing 18th-century costume because A Tale of Two Cities seems to be the only Dickens’ work they leave out of the event. Thus, I wanted some background on the story, and Amazon Prime came to the rescue. There’s also a four-part BBC adaption available on Prime, but 155 minutes was all I wanted to bother with.

A Tale of Two Cities (1980)

Sure, it’s the best of times and the worst of times, that much is obvious, but the two cities aren’t. Paris and London, I guess? Does the book make this clearer? The difference between the cities isn’t all that obvious, until one (Paris, duh) is overrun by a mob with a guillotine. Though maybe Miss Pross (Flora Robson, woot!) going on about being an Englishwoman and a subject of King George is supposed to make the point of how different London is from Paris? And yet, she’s the one who inadvertently kills Madame Defarge, so it’s not like she’s above the fray. IDK.

A Tale of Two Cities (1980)

Really, this is a sappy love story with some historical window-dressing. All the boys are hot for Lucie Manette, she marries Charles Darnay (who’s secretly a French aristocrat), and his lookalike Sydney Carton pines after her until he can give his life for her. Meet cute and die. Boom! I really liked Chris Sarandon in the double lead role as Darnay / Carton — he had this pouty bad-boy thing going with Carton that made his whole face look different enough that I wasn’t sure at first if it was the same actor.

A Tale of Two Cities (1980)

Aristo-faux-Englishman Darnay on the left, drunken lovesick lawyer on the left.

The always amazing Peter Cushing is Lucie’s father, Dr. Alexander Manette, a former Bastille prisoner, adding a level of gravitas. I was annoyed by Billie Whitelaw as Madame Defarge, she seemed incredibly one-note, just REVENGE REVENGE REVENGE. I had no sympathy for her or really any of the lower classes at all. Not sure if that’s this film adaption or Charles Dickens, but I totally sided with the Evremondes in theory. Punishing the second generation for the sins of the first is relentlessly cruel, and in this flick, that’s all Defarge and her lot want.

A Tale of Two Cities (1980)

What about the costumes? Well, they don’t totally suck, but they leave something to be desired when it comes to historical accuracy. Most of the women’s 1780s-ish gowns lace up the back when they shouldn’t. The men are mostly wearing wigs, when they should, but they’re often shiny and white, which they shouldn’t be. Poor Flora Robson is stuck in the worst outfits of the flick, ill-fitting, historically inaccurate, and often ugly. For an actress of her high standing, that seems cruel.

A Tale of Two Cities (1980)

This is the most hideous thing I’ve seen on film in a long time. Also, the hat looks like cardboard.

A Tale of Two Cities (1980)

Go search the site for Kendra’s detailed explanation, but suffice it to say, a stomacher means a gown opens on the front, so it does not need back-lacing.

A Tale of Two Cities (1980)

The only nice dress Miss Pross gets! This is smack in the middle of the movie.

Someone give this woman some bust support, please! And fix that stripe / trim situation, it’s not doing anyone any favors.

A Tale of Two Cities (1980)

OF COURSE it laces up the back. OF COURSE.

A Tale of Two Cities (1980)

Lucie’s costumes look nice enough in overall shape & style…

A Tale of Two Cities (1980)

But they have some issues. (And I’m ignoring the trope of “she’s young, so her hair’s down.”)

A Tale of Two Cities (1980)

Her wedding gown seems pretty.

A Tale of Two Cities (1980)

But it’s not a robe a la francaise. WTF is going on back there? Is that a zipper? Hooks & eyes? It’s so wrinkly!

A Tale of Two Cities (1980)

This is a cute dress, & if I squint, I can see that it’s hinting at 18th-c. references. But the shape is off.

A Tale of Two Cities (1980)

Pretty from the front.

A Tale of Two Cities (1980)

Unnecessary lacing in the back.

A Tale of Two Cities (1980)

Lucie & the kid visit Canton in prison. This is probably the most successful outfit of hers — the jacket has faux buttons up the front & pert little tails in the back.

A Tale of Two Cities (1980)

Only in the long view can you see the lovely trim on the skirt that ties the look together.



Have you seen this version of A Tale of Two Cities or is another one your fave?


About the author

Trystan L. Bass

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A self-described ElderGoth, Trystan has been haunting the internet since the early 1990s. Always passionate about costume, from everyday office wear to outrageous twisted historical creations, she has maintained some of the earliest online costuming-focused resources on the web. Her costuming adventures are chronicled on her website, TrystanCraft. She also ran a popular fashion blog, This Is CorpGoth, dedicated to her “office drag.”

19 Responses

  1. MoHub

    Check out the 1989 miniseries, which featured a combined French and English cast and actually cast two different actors with similar looks to play Darnay and Carton.

  2. Shashwat

    I don’t understand one thing–why don’t we find such prominent back lacing in period movies from other centuries?Victorian dresses for example do not feature a conspicuous opening in most cases.But with the 18th century,filmmakers swear to include atleast one backlacing dress or an entire banquet of them for that matter.Is it because of some misinformation circulating around regarding 18th century fashions,or something else?

    • Trystan L. Bass

      It really does seem to be a thing w/18th-c. dresses on-screen, but I don’t know why. Maybe bec. the historically accurate method of pinning would be difficult for reuse/rentals — but front-opening w/hooks & eyes would have the same look as a pinned front, imo. Honestly, that’s how I made my first few attempts at 18th-c. gowns, & while they were a bit clunky due to my limited skill, it can work. That’s one thing the the current Poldark generally gets right (with one major exception).

      • Roxana

        Pinning would definitely be a problem, what with the wearer getting stuck at odd moments and the inevitable losses taking the dress off. It must have been a headache back in the day, much less now.

        • Cassandra

          Not necessarily: sure, it’d take longer to get dressed, but pinning your overdress meant that it always fit perfectly, even if you gained/lost a little weight, or were retaining water that day. You just pinned your dress so that it fit whatever your body was doing at the time. I do see how pinning could be a problem when using cheap fabrics (like this movie), though.

        • Trystan L. Bass

          Pinning clothes closed is very easy on an individual basis — reenactors do it all the time, & all of my 18th-c. clothes pin shut (great when my weight fluctuates!). You’re wearing a corset/stays & a smock so you won’t stick yourself.

          But I was just thinking that for movies/TV, it would be difficult bec. they have lots more ppl wearing the garments, they may or may not be made in materials that can take pinning (silk & wool can be pinned like butter! dunno about blends). And not every production uses the same undergarments with a gown, so they could get pokey.

          So yeah, what’s simple for one person may not scale up for many ppl on set.

  3. Fogbraider

    The only version for me is the 1958 with Dirk Bogarde as Carton and Dorothy Tutin as Lucy Manette. The action of the novel is rearranged to make Carton’s story the central one, and he comes across as both tragic and heroic. The revolutionaries are treated sympathetically, with Mme Lefarge’s back story explaining her heartless lust for revenge.

  4. Ljones41

    Most of Dickens villains tend to be working-class or middle-class/trade. I think he was an upper-class wannabe at heart, even if was willing to occasionally criticise them.

  5. Elizabeth Mahon

    I’m amazed that this novel hasn’t been remade since the miniseries starring James Wilby. Meanwhile we’ve had two versions of Little Dorrit, multiple Oliver Twists and a new David Copperfield. I wonder if the French Revolution backdrop is why it isn’t remade more.

  6. Alexander

    Poor Flora Robson indeed! It seems hideously disrespectful to garb her in those hideous gowns… what the hell is that pink stomacher thingy???

  7. Alissa Pyrich

    I imagine a lifelong study of Victorian literature would only increase the chances of hating Dickens.

  8. Cheryl from Maryland

    Was never able to finish either this TV production or the actual book as I always wanted to slap Sydney Carlton and those who loved/admired him the face for being saps. Which is why I also cannot abide the “Old Curiosity Shop.”

  9. Valéria Fernandes Da Silva

    Thanks for this article! This was the first version of The tale of Two Cities I’ve watched, I think more than 25 years ago. I was really impressed as a teenager and I cried in the end. 🤣

  10. Saraquill

    I’ve only ever seen the Wishbone version. After seeing the screen caps above, I’ll stick to that.

  11. Nzie

    My goodness, these are awful. True story: the only production of AToTC I’ve seen is the Wishbone episode! I don’t always have patience for Dickens, and I rue the Great Illustrated Classics books I read, which served to inoculate me against rather than interest me in a number of great works, but when I finally did read A Tale of Two Cities, I loved it. I knew the plot, but it still surprised me, and it went from so sarcastic and critical at the end to such beautiful tenderness at the beginning. Strangely I don’t find myself having much interest in watching it. And after your costume review, if I do watch any, it won’t be this one.

    • HeidLea


      I was a teenager when the series came out, but I loved it!