Title: Doctor Zhivago
Director: David Lean
Major Players: Omar Sharif, Julie Christie, Alec Guinness
Out Of Five: Four
David Lean’s Doctor Zhivago was the first “grown up” movie I saw at the cinema. I was 12 and completely enraptured, nay obsessed with it, for weeks afterwards. Not that I necessarily understood everything I’d seen on screen, but the sheer scale and drama more than made up for it.
The next time, I saw it on TV and I was in my mid-20s and my reaction was completely different. I thought it mushy and hammy and generally struggled to find anything good about it, let alone understand why I loved it so much first time round. And now it’s back in cinemas again, this time in a newly restored version to mark its 50th anniversary and shown as part of the LOVE season at BFI Southbank, as well as selected cinemas around the country. So what’s the verdict this time?
It certainly belongs in the current BFI season. This is a love story – a love triangle, actually – set against the turmoil of the Russian Revolution. Adopted as an orphan, Yuri Zhivago (Omar Sharif) graduates as a doctor and, in his spare time, is a moderately successful poet. He marries Tonya (Geraldine Chaplin) and then is sent to the front in the First World War, where he meets Lara (Julie Christie), somebody he has nearly met several times. They fall in love and have an affair but, with the advent of revolution, he returns to Russia and what’s left of his family. But it’s not the last time he and Lara will be together.
That’s the simplified version. There’s a whole host of characters entangled in the various sub-plots that fill the film’s three and a quarter hours. And there’s a certain amount of nostalgia attached to seeing a film like this. They certainly don’t make them that long any more, nor do they have intermissions. When was the last time you watched a film at the cinema with one of those?
On its original release, Zhivago didn’t get a terribly good critical reception, but it eventually landed no less than five Oscars, one for Robert Bolt’s screenplay and another for Maurice Jarre’s sweeping soundtrack. And while Jarre’s music has stood the test of time, Lara’s Theme in particular, the same can’t be said for the script, which creaks with age and sounds stilted at times. Poor Ralph Richardson, who plays Tonya’s father, is saddled with some of the worst lines but does his best with them and nearly gets away with it. I say “poor” because he still manages to give a lovely performance as a middle class man adrift in the new Russia, but a decent, loving man all the same. Just watch his eyes when his daughter returns home after a long absence.
This is a very Hollywood film, painting an idealised picture and its incongruities are hard to ignore. Both of the women in Zhivago’s life are remarkably skilled in transforming utter wrecks into comfortable living quarters for themselves and their man. Even more miraculously, they are never short of food, even when they live miles from anywhere in the vast Russian countryside.
You have to suspend your disbelief – and that’s not the only time. The movie was, after all, made in the mid-60s, when Hollywood style still ruled, even if it was starting to be on the wane. Visually, it’s a feast – staggeringly good for its day – and demands to be seen on the big screen to enjoy Freddie Young’s cinematography to its full advantage. There’s huge panoramic scenes: the funeral at the beginning (one that echoes Lean’s earlier Great Expectations), Zhivago staggering through the snow to get home and the troika ride to the deserted country house. Smaller scenes are equally beautiful and full of detail: the frosty etchings on the windows, Lara’s mother’s workroom.
While Peter O’Toole was originally in contention for the title role, it ultimately went to his Lawrence Of Arabia co-star, Omar Sharif. His huge brown eyes are regularly in close up, so frequently that it starts to look like a lack of confidence on Lean’s part, concealing that his leading man wasn’t quite up to carrying the film. He certainly has the looks and a certain amount of screen presence, but his acting range is questionable and his final scenes are a case in point. We see a lot of Julie Christie’s large, blue eyes as well, although her incredibly shiny blonde hair and pale lippy mean that your abiding image is one of a 60s model. The best performances come from Tom Courtney as an idealistic student who becomes a revolutionary commander, and Rod Steiger as the unscrupulous and amoral Komarovsky who has a remarkable ability to survive, whatever the colour of the government.
Seeing Doctor Zhivago where it belongs, on the big screen, is no waste of time. It’s an epic romance to wallow in, as long as you can ignore its weaknesses. For a film that’s half a century old, it stands up remarkably well, especially in its cinematography. I liked it much more than I did the second time round, but there’s no ignoring its flaws. Yet again, though, Lean shows himself to be the master when it comes to picking a really good narrative and telling it with clarity.
The newly-remastered Doctor Zhivago is released at selected cinemas around the country from Friday, 27 November. It will be reviewed on Talking Pictures on Thursday, 26 November.