Doctor Zhivago


Reviewed by: Jeff Robson

Doctor Zhivago
"Every image drives the story on, or highlights the characters’ tragedy."

In an era where the term “blockbuster” is regularly applied to the most over-hyped, over-CGI-ed slice of Hollywood formula since the last one, it’s refreshing to be reminded of an era that produced films which were epic in every sense of the word.

Lean’s magnificent adaptation of Boris Pasternak’s classic novel is doing the rounds again in a brand new print to celebrate its 50th anniversary. And if ever a movie was made to be seen on the biggest screen, with the beefiest sound system, possibly it’s this one.

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Like it’s earlier (and even more majestic) companion piece, Lawrence Of Arabia, it takes a cracking story from a fascinating era of what was then relatively recent history and gives it the full treatment. Breathtaking images appear in bewildering succession, accompanied by a score you could take a bath in. But everything is always at the service of a compelling script that tackles some weighty issues without ever seeming ponderous – and gives a world-class cast a handful of roles to die for.

If your first experience of it was a crackly print with a dodgy soundtrack at the Neasden Fleapit or (like me) an ITV “premiere” many Christmases ago, on a 15" screen with adverts every half-hour and a break for News At Ten, it’s worth seeing again looking its best. And you may find, as I did, that for every telling moment you’ve never forgotten there’s one that seems freshly minted.

A case in point for me was the opening. A silent mass of workers trudge across the top of a huge dam in the heart of Soviet Russia in a dead of night pierced by huge spotlights. It’s a classic Lean shot, but as so often in his work he immediately zooms in to the human story being played out against the grand, impersonal vista.

The great people’s endeavour is being visited by General Yevgraf (Alec Guinness), a senior Party eminence. But despite the manager’s misgivings, he’s not there for a progress report. Instead he asks to speak to a young worker (Rita Tushingham), who he believes to be the daughter of his half-brother.

She can remember almost nothing of the parents she was separated from in the chaos of the Russian Civil War. In a bid to jog her memory, Yevgraf relates the story of her father, the doctor who became a renowned (but long-since banned) poet. And her mother, the beautiful, inspiring Lara…

Yes, it’s the flashback to end all flashbacks, folks. And Lean instantly takes us 40years and half a world away, to an Orthodox funeral service on the far side of the Urals, where Yuri Zhivago’s mother (Julie Christie) is being laid into the cold earth as her young son looks on in bewildered sorrow.

A family friend, Alexander (Ralph Richardson) takes the orphan under his wing. They return to Moscow, where Yuri grows up to be a brilliant doctor – but one determined to help people and “experience life” by going into general practice rather than research. He’s also become an acclaimed poet (as you do). And he looks like Omar Sharif. Hardly surprising then, that Alexander’s daughter, Tonya (Geraldine Chaplin) has fallen head over heels for him.

The golden couple have Moscow society at their feet. But revolution is in the air and for many of the people around them life isn’t so rosy. One such is Lara, a seamstress whose mother provides gowns for the elite. But the family is indebted to Komarovsky (Rod Steiger), a cynical “fixer” who wants the daughter of his mistress as his next plaything.

Lara feels attracted to his worldly charm, despite her better judgement – and despite being engaged to Pasha (Tom Courtenay), a young idealist committed to changing the system through peaceful protest. These principal characters’ worlds then collide in a series of stunning set pieces, both personal and political. And when Zhivago sees Lara by chance, lit by a single candle through a smeared window, he’s instantly captivated.

As World War One, then the Revolution, ensue, the protagonists are cast to the four winds of a vast country in historic turmoil. But Zhivago keeps re-encountering Lara and feels drawn to her despite the constant devotion of Tonya, who brings up their family and tries to keep some semblance of their old life - even when the cold eye of the new state turns on them…

Since this is a Russian novel (albeit a banned Soviet-era one, whose samizdat publication in the West was a story in itself, sparking a bidding frenzy for the film rights) you’ll probably have guessed that everyone has a rough old time and happiness is doomed to be fleeting. But Lean and his regular screenwriter Bolt (a gifted author himself, whose classic play A Man For All Seasons tackles similar themes of individual conscience in a brutal era where failure to conform meant death) constantly find warmth and humour amid the bleakness. At the same time, they’re very clear-eyed about the tragic consequences that occur when even the noblest ideals are pursued too ruthlessly.

You may find that Zhivago and Lara’s constant bumping into each other in all this chaos stretches credibility a tad. You may also feel his treatment of Tonya throughout all this is not so much an epic star-crossed triangle as a selfish, indecisive character wanting to have his borscht and eat it.

But that, like the rest of the film, is a faithful adaptation of Pasternak’s novel. And Lean and Bolt constantly find humanity and sympathy in all of the main characters. Even Komarovsky, whose reappearance serving the Bolsheviks in an essentially unchanged role, is one of the film’s most telling comments – and prompts its final denouement. On the way, there are great moments galore. A doomed charge by a spectral Russian army, emerging from a snowbound Eastern Front trench. The tragicomic scene where discontent turns to open mutiny and the Revolution begins. The confrontation between Zhivago and Pasha, reborn as the legendary Red Guard leader Strelnikov, a scarred and glacial permanent revolutionary. The White Russians massacred in the cornfield. The “ice palace” where the lovers have their fleeting idyll…

The list is almost endless, and its influence on other filmmakers, as well as on fashion, design and pop videos (you’ll have to forgive it for inspiring U2) is impossible to overstate. But it’s never simply about empty spectacle. Every image drives the story on, or highlights the characters’ tragedy.

Kudos to Freddie Young’s cinematography (and Nicholas Roeg’s, who was briefly behind the camera before Lean parted company with him), not to mention John Box’s lavish, intricate production design, Maurice Jarre’s glorious score, with an everlasting earworm of a main theme, and the man himself supervising the editing suite. There’s old-school professionalism and artistic flair in every department.

And great screen acting by the yard. Sharif was, according to some rumours, Lean’s second choice after Peter O’Toole hummed and haah-ed too much. But he charts the character’s arc from handsome, charismatic idealist to worn and tortured man with aplomb. And if he seems less of a compelling presence than the other protagonists sometimes, that’s in keeping with a character who’s essentially quite passive, doomed to be blown by the winds of fate.

Christie is radiant, of course, but Chaplin is equally impressive in a thankless role. Richardson steals every scene as usual, conveying the decency and pathos of a man trying to maintain his dignity as his world slowly crumbles.

Courtenay is superb in both his incarnations. Guinness is in it less than you might remember, but compelling throughout as the embodiment of the Revolution, cherishing the one drop of humanity left in him as he continues his brother’s quest. And Steiger was never better as the predatory but seductive eternal survivor.

If you’ve never seen it before – well, I’m tempted to say: call yourself a film fan? But get yourself along to it now. You’ll find all I’ve just said doesn’t begin to cover it. “Lawrence…” is possibly a more completely perfect film, but if you want to know what the David Lean fuss is about, this is as good a place to start as any (and, ahem, a far better one than Ryan’s Daughter).

If you have, go and enjoy it once again. You’ll probably find it a bit different to how you remember it. You may even come away thinking some bits play like Mills and Boon with a Party membership card. But I guarantee you’ll still be blown away anew by its perfect combination of the epic and the personal. By the beauty and pathos of a good tale well told. All that we love about going to the pictures, in other words.

Reviewed on: 08 Dec 2015
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Doctor Zhivago packshot
Restored version of the Lean classic sees an idealistic poet/physician and the fiancée of a political activist meet and fall in love against the backdrop of the Russian Revolution.
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Director: David Lean

Writer: Boris Pasternak, Robert Bolt

Starring: Omar Sharif, Julie Christie, Geraldine Chaplin, Rod Steiger, Alec Guinness, Tom Courtenay, Siobhan McKenna, Ralph Richardson, Rita Tushingham, Jeffrey Rockland, Tarek Sharif, Bernard Kay, Klaus Kinski, Gérard Tichy, Noel Willman

Year: 1965

Runtime: 197 minutes

BBFC: PG - Parental Guidance

Country: US, Italy

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If you like this, try:

Lawrence Of Arabia
The Leopard