Directed By: David Lean
Written By: Robert Bolt (Based on the novel Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak)
Starring: Omar Sharif, Julie Christie, Tom Courtenay, Alec Guinness, Rod Steiger
David Lean is the unquestioned face of epic cinema. By the 1966 Oscars he had two Best Director Awards to his name, for Bridge on the River Kwai (a film which
I think holds up as the definitive capturing of the lunacy of war), and Lawrence of Arabia, both of which also went on to claim the awards’ top prize. Lean’s 1966 contender for Best Picture, Doctor Zhivago, is, if nothing else, certainly epic, with various cuts all running well past the three hour mark and operating as both an histo
rical drama and a sweeping romance, but one can’t help but feel that only one of these faces to the story delivers the grandeur promised by a Lean epic.
We open in post-World War 2 Russia with Yevgraf Zhivago (Alec Guinness) questioning a young woman he hopes to be the daughter of his half-brother, the eponymous Yuri (Omar Sharif). Yevgraf recounts the past of Yuri, detailing both his profession
al and romantic exploits. Through flashback we journey alongside Yuri into the First World War and revolutionary Russia in 1917, but perhaps more pressingly to the story, we journey through Yuri’s two key relationships, his relationship with his wife Tonya (Geraldine Chaplin) and his love affair with the damaged Lana (Julie Christie, continuing her home wrecker rampage all the way from swinging 60’s London). It is the latter of which that proves truly haunting for Yuri and drives much of the film’s romantic tensions.
As mentioned, this is a film of two faces, and it is as a historical drama, capturing a country in revolt, that it is at its most effective. Lean paints his canvas with incredibly fine strokes and his attention to detail allows for an immersive recreation of war time and revolutionary Russia. The photography, shot by Freddie Young (who netted himself an Oscar for his work here) is both beautiful and a indicative of the larger story, capturing the vast cloud-like sea of snow which blankets an entire country, its chill biting, harsh and palpable, going hand in hand with the enveloping and taxing nature of the conflicts Russia finds itself in. Contrarily, the sun, when allowed to shine, is radiant. You can feel its warmth as it illuminates fields of flowers and denotes the slight hopefulness that infects Yuri. The production design is also great, further authenticating the piece as an historical document and allowing the viewer to chart the decay and ruin of Russia. You can feel the desperation of the revolutionaries and traditionalists alike. You can feel the claustrophobia and chill of the trains and the homes, the brief moments of violence are physical, you can feel the ice on your skin as Yuri treks through snow and buildings become encased in snow. You can feel the passion of the revolutionaries, passion most evident in Tom Courtenay’s fiery Pasha, and you can sense the growing despair and hopelessness as others attempt to live on.
As a framing of the mentality and physical state of Russia, Lean is right in his element, but it is in the attempted romance of the film that you start to feel its length. It takes a long time to get nowhere and it grows laborious. While Omar Sharif is underappreciated here (his performance is nicely understated and humanist) the relationship of Yuri and Lana never fully convinces. Where Yuri and Tonya’s relationship carries an air of youthful jubilance and hopefulness, Yuri and Lana never quite feel compatible. The relationship just…happens, without any great deal of virility. While the film is not short on displaying affectionate acts, the emotion behind it all just feels cold and the film requires too big a leap of faith from the viewer for its central story to work, one that I found myself unwilling to make.
Undeniably well crafted, Doctor Zhivago, for all its grandeur in scale and production, just isn’t as involving as it ought to be. A fine rendering of time and place, but it leaves wanting in its key relationship.