Lively, entertaining reviews of, and essays on, old and newer films and everything relating to them, written by professional author William Schoell.

Thursday, May 13, 2010


DOCTOR ZHIVAGO (1965). Director: David Lean.

"What happens to a girl like that when a man like you has finished with her?"

It is the 45th anniversary of the release of this epic film by David Lean, based on the novel by Boris Pasternak.
At the beginning we learn that the two main protagonists, Yuri Zhivago (Omar Sharif), a doctor and poet, and Lara (Julie Christie), whose boyfriend is a revolutionary, have had a child. As the film progresses the two are married to other people, so you wonder for quite a while how the couple are ultimately going to get together. Their love story is set upon the background of WW 1 and the Russian revolution and all the chaos that ensued during and afterward.

As an epic, the film is quite effective with some memorable scenes: the dragoons charging on horseback and attacking the marching band of revolutionaries; an officer lecturing to tired, disgusted soldiers who falls into a barrel of water and then is shot dead in an instant; most of all the long, detailed journey that Yuri takes with his family to the country by railroad, dozens crowded into each car that buckle and sway as if any moment they'll fall to pieces.

As a romantic drama, be forewarned that David Lean is no William Wyler, but perhaps the main problem is Maurice Jarre's muscial score. Jarre layers the soundtrack with attractive music [although Lara's theme wears out its welcome pretty quickly] but it doesn't embellish and compliment the emotions of the characters or what's going on on-screen like a score by, say, Max Steiner. Hence, despite all the grim and indeed heart-breaking stuff going on, you may never be especially moved by the proceedings.

The movie is over 3 hours long -- the new 45th anniversary has the complete film, which is shown in letterbox format, thank goodness -- but it is never boring because Lean, whatever his deficiencies, keeps things moving, and the plot and characters are always interesting. Of course, like other long films, undoubtedly a lot of important stuff got left on the cutting room floor --for instance, the scene wherein Yuri's wife and mistress finally meet is only referred to in dialogue [!] -- so the film at times seems a trifle disjointed. It helps to know Russian history to understand fully what's happening, and you may find yourself checking the novel out of the library to fill in some missing details.

Omar Sharif may never have been considered a great actor, but he's effective enough in the title role, and has a particularly good scene when he looks in the mirror after a harrowing journey and realizes to his horror how much he's aged. Julie Christie is also good -- although neither performer compares to the greats of the golden age. The best acting comes from Ralph Richardson as Alexander, Yuri's father surrogate [and father-in-law]; Rod Steiger as the ferocious Victor Komarovsky; and Tom Courtenay as Lara's husband. There is also fine work from Geraldine Chaplin as Yuri's wife, Rita Tushingham as his probable daughter, Alex Guinness as his half-brother, and Klaus Kinski as a mad man on the train. Omar Sharif's young son Tarek plays Yuri as a boy and does it well-- what a great face! Petya, Alexander's servant, is played by Jack MacGowran, who appeared in everything from The Giant Behemoth to The Exorcist.
All in all, whatever its flaws, Doctor Zhivago is a very interesting picture. The hard work that went into the film is obvious.

Verdict: Worthwhile historical drama with frustrated romance at its heart. ***.
NOTE: To read about the recommended 45th Anniversary DVD release click here.

No comments: