Doctor Zhivago is a movie whose reputation precedes it. Doctor Zhivago marks my first foray into David Lean territory – a director I’ve avoided because his movies require getting comfy for over two hours. With that, Zhivago lives up to the definition of the word “epic” and boasts some incredible performances, from Julie Christie in particular, that deliver on an already beautiful Blu-ray presentation.
Set in Russia between the beginning of WWI and the Russian Civil War, Yuri Zhivago (Omar Sharif) starts out as a naive young doctor whose long-standing relationship with a young woman named Lara (Christie) provides the only succor in a country filled with bloodshed and conflicting ideals.
Lean’s mastery as a filmmaker remains unquestioned. Doctor Zhivago is nothing short of expansive, and that’s not limited to the majestic Ural mountain backgrounds dwarfing the villages the characters inhabit. The movie’s time span goes from 1916 up to the 1950s, aiding the audience in feeling as if these characters are journeying and changing throughout, part of which is helped by an over three-hour runtime, but it’s also in the actors carrying the wear and toil on their bodies. Omar Sharif, who rocked a cravat like it was nobody’s business in Funny Girl (1968), starts out as a bright-eyed neophyte doctor before revolution whose struggle leaves him bleary-eyed, white-haired and alone. The only light that’s not extinguished is his poetic love for Lara, “the Lara” as she’s introduced.
Sharif is great, although I found him more memorable in the aforementioned Funny Girl. The scene-stealer is Julie Christie as the iconic Lara. Having watched the BBC version of this film before, I was surprised at what a minor role Christie’s character plays despite so much of the plot revolving around her. More than any other character, short of the countless unnamed Russians killed during the war, Lara’s suffering is the grandest. She has a mother who appears to openly give her to an older man (played by Rod Steiger, uninterested in hiding his lack of Russian-ness) who rapes her and ruins her reputation. Christie bears all of this with a subtler change in mannerisms and appearance than Sharif, starting the film all blonde hair, little girl bows, and bright eyes. During Komarovsky’s seduction of her, he picks out a garish, almost saloon-style red dress for Lara in a stark transition from young girl to woman. It’s shocking what an effect a dress can have on a character, but Lara is changed from there and Christie emphasizes the confusion – does she love this man, need him, hate him? – and ersatz power that comes from being an adult.
All of this leads to Lara’s eventual attack by Komarovksy, an act that, while tame by today’s standards, is garishly provoked by the man’s declaration to Lara, “Don’t delude yourself that this was rape. It would flatter us both.” Robert Bolt’s screenplay, while too often filled with overly florid political preaching, succinctly illustrates the irrevocable and horrific events of what’s transpired, without showing anything more than two people on a bed. Christie’s acting becomes plaintive and beaten down, giving way to her eventual romance with Zhivago.
What’s odd is, for all the talk of this being a grand romantic feature, Christie disappears for nearly an hour of the film’s second half. Yuri ends up returning to his wife, played by the darling Geraldine Chaplin, and learns to survive the harsh winter. It leads to questioning whose story this truly is, and how can there be this romance between Lara and Yuri when they’ve barely met? Their reintroduction, with Lara becoming Zhivago’s nurse, takes about thirty minutes and doesn’t amount to any grandiose gestures, let alone a declaration amounting to love. The whole thing adds up to a tale of lust, before the final thirty minutes of the movie where the two are finally together. It’s been said Boris Pasternak’s book on which this was based was heavily edited to pump up the romance and trivialize the war. As a first-time watcher, I found both elements lacking, with an overall desire to follow Zhivago’s story, first and foremost. This doesn’t succeed in ruining the film, but leaves the viewer questioning who we’re meant to root for by the end.
Regardless, Warner’s Blu-ray of this is nothing short of stunning, a breathtaking example of the best cinematography out there, with Freddie Young as the director of photography. The way the land blends and overtakes the village looks like a scene from something John Martin would have painted – God’s canvas supported God’s creations while still reminding them of their insignificance. Lean and crew know the art of composition, there’s no doubt about that. Furthermore, the use of color shows the quiet breakdown of rule within Russia; red, the lusty color of Lara’s dress and the wallpaper of Komarovsky’s bourgeois locales, slowly segues to a drab world of demoralized grays and browns. When Yuri takes in the quiet solitude of the mountains, the white of the sparkling snow in the trees does more than a million bright colors.
Like similar films with immense praise at their backs, it’s hard summing up Doctor Zhivago as a whole. The film works best for its individual parts: the acting, the cinematography, the history. All of those things work in tandem to create a movie worth seeing, even if the flaws are apparent.
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.