[Film Review] Doctor Zhivago (1965)

Doctor Zhivago poster

Title: Doctor Zhivago
Year: 1965
Country: USA, Italy, UK
Language: English, Russian, French
Genre: Drama, Romance, War
Director: David Lean
Writer: Robert Bolt
based on the novel by Boris Pasternak
Music: Maurice Jarre
Cinematography: Freddie Young
Omar Sharif
Julie Christie
Rod Steiger
Tom Courtenay
Geraldine Chaplin
Alec Guinness
Ralph Richardson
Siobhan McKenna
Klaus Kinski
Rita Tushingham
Adrienne Corri
Geoffrey Keen
Lili Muráti
Jack MacGowran
Gérard Tichy
Rating: 7.3/10

Doctor Zhivago 1965

David Lean’s enterprising adaption of Boris Pasternak’s novel (stoutly scripted by Robert Bolt) is a giant box office champion and a five-times Academy winner (although it lost BEST PICTURE and BEST DIRECTOR to Robert Wise’s THE SOUND OF MUSIC), also it is hyped as a commensurate heavyweight like Victor Flemming’s GONE WITH THE WIND (1939), but standing side by side, although Lean’s picture can effortlessly sweep its audience off their feet under the salvo of its grandiose production design, picturesque cinematography (D.P. Freddie Young won an Oscar for it) and all other visually-stunning trappings, its characterisation of the two leads, Yuri Zhivago (Sharif) and Lara Antipova (Christie), pales by comparison.

Like GONE WITH THE WIND, it is an epic romance fiercely tested by the vagaries of a tumultuous wartime, but unlike Scarlett and Rhett, Yuri and Lara are not quarrelsome, mismatching pair, they fall for each other unconditionally, apart from the damning war and their married status, they are meant to each other unyieldingly, their personality edges have never materialised as a stumbling block between them, which regrettably makes both cardboard characters to watch, notwithstanding Sharif’s soulful eyes often moist with tears and Christie is such a drop-dread gorgeous to take our breath away.

The frame narrative in the beginning where Yevgraf (Guinness) is looking for the daughter of Yuri (his half brother) and Lara gives away the denouement beforehand, to save non-readers from the anxiety of finding out their ill-fated destiny during the lengthy duration. The story prior to their predestined meeting, namely Lara’s liaison with Victor Komarovsky (Steiger, the only American in the cast, a towering presence of moral corruption), an opportunist and the lover of Amelia (Corri), Lara’s mother, fans a dumbfounding reception thanks to the elliptical narrative, an ever-so-suspicious strategy to obscure Lara’s motivation and her reasoning, pigeonhole her as a 17-year-old lost soul, and cunningly lends a free pass to Yuri’s later behaviour, in spite of being a family man with a devoted wife Tonya (an angular and docile Chaplin) and a son, he has no qualms to fall for Lara, since on a subconscious level, they are both “sinners”, caving in to their depravity.

Yuri and Lara are apolitical, they are being passively dragged into the whirlpool of revolution and war like the masses, Yuri’s duty as a doctor is to save lives, whether they are white or red soldiers, they are all his compatriots, but his poems (strangely enough none of them is being quoted throughout the years-spanning saga), which, as an art form, can be arbitrarily interpreted to conform with any political leanings, become an allegation to him (along with a desertion from Communist partisans). Lara’s involvement is deeper, because she marries Pasha (Courtnay, who is the only actor nabbed an Oscar nomination among the ensemble), a radical revolutionist and in due course will become Strelnikov, a scar-faced Bolshevik commander. So Lara’s only fate is to flee from her motherland after Strelnikov’s doom, and that is something Yuri can never condescend to do, he is a noble patriot, he will not look for her wife and kids in Paris, neither will he go in exile in Mongolia with Lara and Victor, he grasps the nettle to let go of his lover of life, and stays put. Bolt contrives a heart-rending final scene for Yuri, years later, on the tramway he spots Lara on the street, but fails to catch her notice right before dropping dead of over-excitement and his poor health, woefully echoes the beginning: the farthest distance between two people is not life and death, it is when they sit on the same tram-car, but unbeknownst to each other’s existence. That is how fate-twisting life can be!

Overall, DOCTOR ZHIVAGO fails to live up to the searing emotional impact LAWRENCE OF ARABIA (1962) once confidently delivered, but given Lean and his team’s protracted shooting schedule and onerous work under rather difficult conditions, one cannot have the heart to give tongues no matter how deep the gap is.


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