Based on Boris Pasternak’s novel, Doctor Zhivago tells the story of a Russian doctor/poet whose life is changed when he has an affair with a political activist during the Russian Revolution. Directed by David Lean and script adaptation by Robert Bolt, the film is among one of Lean’s great epics as he explores a man’s relationship with his wife and lover in a tumultuous period. Starring Omar Sharif, Julie Christie, Geraldine Chaplin, Rod Steiger, Tom Courtenay, Klaus Kinski, and Alec Guinness. Doctor Zhivago is an exhilarating yet sprawling film from David Lean and company.
Yuri Andreyevich Zhivago (Omar Sharif) is a young doctor/poet living in Moscow with his adoptive parents Alexander (Ralph Richardson) and Anna Gromeko (Siobhan McKenna) along with their daughter Tonya (Geraldine Chaplin) who is returning from Paris. In another part of Moscow, a 17-year old dressmaker named Lara (Julie Christie) works with her mother (Adrienne Corri) as they deal with their corrupt advisor Victor (Rod Steiger). With Lara in love with the politically-driven Pasha (Tom Courtenay), Victor disapproves as he tries to seduce Lara. When Lara’s mother attempts suicide, Victor calls for Alexander and Yuri for help where Yuri sees Lara for the first time.
Humiliated by Victor, Lara borrows Pasha’s gun as she shoots Victor at a Christmas party held by the Gromekos. Yuri wouldn’t see Lara until years later during World War I where he is a doctor while she’s a volunteer trying to Pasha who has gone missing. The two becomes friends only to part again with the news of the Czar’s overthrow as Yuri returns to Moscow to find his famiy home inhabited by people. With he, Tonya, their son Sasha (Jeffrey Rockland), and Alexander trapped, they’re saved by a Bolshevik official named Yevgraf (Alec Guinness), who is Yuri’s older half-brother. Yevgraf arranged for Yuri and his family to travel to Yuriatin at the old Gromeko estate where they travel by train with various people and soldiers including a raspy intellectual named Amoursky (Klaus Kinski). During the trip, a train carrying a revolutionary named Strelnikov passes them as Yuri meets the mysterious man realizing who he really is.
Arriving at the Gromeko estate they realize the place is closed as they live in the cottage that is close to the estate. At the nearby town of Yuriatin, Yuri sees Lara for the first time in years as the two begin an affair. Torn with his love for Lara and Tonya, Yuri is more unsure when Tonya is pregnant as he seeks to end the affair. He’s then later captured by Communist troops under the command of Liberius (Gerard Tichy) where he serves as a doctor for two years. After deserting the army and returning to Yuriatin, he meets Lara again who takes care of him while learning that Tonya and their children along with Alexander has left for Paris. Living with Lara and her daughter Katya (Lucy Westmore) by taking them to the abandoned Gromeko estate, they live quietly until a man from their past returns with a warning about Lara as he gives them an ultimatum to save their lives. This would prompt Yuri to make the biggest sacrifice of his life.
Spanning from the early 1910s to post-Stalin Soviet Union, the film is told from the perspective of Yevgraf to a young woman (Rita Tushingham) whom he believes is the illegitimate daughter of half-brother. There, Yevgraf through brief moments of narration tells the story of his brother from his childhood to the last time he would see him. What happens is that the story takes place into a love triangle amidst the chaos of the Russian Revolution where characters go through various changes and such. Yet, the film begins and ends with scenes in the 1950s with Yevgraf and this young woman who could be his grand-niece.
Robert Bolt’s script is very engaging not just for its time span but also for the development of characters and situations that happens. Among them is its titular protagonist whose life starts off tragically with the death of his mother as all he inherited is a balalaika whom he would carry throughout the entirety of the film. Yet, Yuri Zhivago is a man that always uses poetry as an outlet to express his feelings amidst the chaos of political changes where his writing is considered subversive. During the course of the film, he is often surrounded by Tonya who is clearly devoted to him though feels a bit threatened by Lara where she only meets her briefly from afar with the exception of an unseen meeting mentioned in a letter.
Lara is a woman who is very different from Tonya as far as social orders and struggles are concerned. Still, both women provide a sense of warmth and energy that Yuri is attracted to. The fact that he loves both of them tears him up inside where he doesn’t want to hurt either of them while both women seems to know about what is going on. The love story aspect truly balances a lot of the political elements of the film where in the scene where Yuri and his family come home to the Gromeko estate. Alexander realizes it’s closed up because of the revolution where he has a hard time living without the things he’s worked so hard for. Characters like Victor and Pasha are two different men from different ideals as they progress into different figures.
Bolt’s script is great for its development of characters and settings while not using a lot of exposition to advance the story. Instead, he lets action and emotions drive everything as well as the political situations to motivate characters. It is truly a captivating screenplay that doesn’t do too much while keeping things a bit simple in some places as well as complex in other places.
David Lean’s direction is truly phenomenal in the way he creates a world that is oppressive but also evocative for its large story. Shot on location in Spain throughout the film with parts of it show in Canada and Finland since it was impossible to shoot in the Soviet Union at the time. Lean creates a world that progresses as Moscow starts out and ends as a world where things are in order and open despite its different periods while progressing it to a place ravaged by chaos. When the film moves to a different location, the feel becomes grittier and darker while there is still an element of beauty to these locations despite the harsh political tone of the film.
Lean’s striking compositions filled with wide shots of landscapes and intimate close-up shots truly presents a film that is stylized but also engrossing for its look of the film. Lean, like a lot of big epic films of 1960s, opens the film with an overture and adds an intermission for a film that is more than three hours long. Yet, Lean keeps the film very methodical in its pacing without moving things too fast. Instead, he gets the audience be engaged by all that is happening from scenes where Yuri is walking home through treacherous snow or the brief moment of innocence when he’s walking around the forest before meeting Strelnikov. Lean creates what is truly a dazzling yet glorious film that is truly romantic and epic in its story and in its presentation.
Cinematographer Freddie Young, with additional work from Nicolas Roeg, does an incredible job with the film‘s colorful, lush photography as he captures many of the snowy scenes with great beauty and a harsh realism for some of the film‘s darker scenes. Young also creates some amazing shots for scenes in the forest and landscapes along with the wonderful use of red to capture the political tone of the film. Editor Norman Savage does excellent work with the editing as he maintains a very straightforward approach to the cutting while using transitional dissolves and fade-outs to maintain the film’s leisured pace.
Production designer John Box, with set decorator Dario Simoni and art director Terence Marsh, does a great job with the set pieces created such as the Moscow home of the Gromekos and other posh places to empty places that the characters frequent throughout the film. The art direction and set design are truly spectacular in scope and to help create a place in time that was a long time ago. Costume designer Phyllis Dalton does a superb job with the costumes from the dresses the women wear to the suits the men along with the fur and ragged clothing during the war and other harrowing scenes. Sound editor A.W. Watkins does very good work with the sound from the way gunshots sound from afar to the roar of crowds in the protest scenes and chaos with soldiers attacking officers.
The film’s magnificent score by Maurice Jarre is definitely one of the film’s big highlights as his sweeping orchestral arrangements mixed in with Russian string instruments and choir-driven vocals. Jarre also provides lush themes such as Lara’s Theme with its brimming balalaikas and soothing strings to help convey the romantic aspects of the film. There is also big bombastic pieces that help drives the film in its more intense, action scenes as Jarre’s work is truly outstanding.
The casting by Irene Howard is fantastic for the ensemble that is assembled for this massive film. Notable appearances include Tarek Sharif as the young Yuri, Mercedes Ruiz as the young Tonya, Lucy Westmore as Lara’s daughter Katya, Geoffrey Keen as Yuri’s professor, Bernard Kay as a Bolshevik agent, Jack MacGowran as the Gromeko’s old groundskeeper, Gerard Tischy as an army leader, Siobhan McKenna as Tonya’s mother, Adrienne Corri as Lara’s mother, and Rita Tushingham as the young woman Yevgraf talks to in the beginning and ending of the film. Other notable small roles includes the legendary Klaus Kinski in standout performance as a smarmy intellectual who worships Strelnikov along with Ralph Richardson as Alexander Gromeko who is dismayed the changes as he loses nearly all of the things he worked for.
Rod Steiger is superb as Victor, the corrupt lawyer whom Yuri dislikes for personal reasons as Steiger brings in a brash, charismatic performance as a brutish man who loves Lara but for all the wrong reasons. Tom Courtenay is great as Pasha, an idealistic man who loves Lara as he hopes to win her only to be changed drastically by the politics of the time. Alec Guinness is wonderful as Yevgraf, the film’s narrator and Yuri’s half-brother as he is a calm authority figure who helps out Yuri while telling the young girl about him and everything he sees in a very understated performance. Geraldine Chaplin is radiant as Tonya, Yuri’s wife who tries to deal with his absence and the presence of Lara. While it’s not fully-realized character, Chaplin does Tonya a captivating figure who provides a sense of warmth and motivation for Yuri.
Julie Christie is amazing as Lara, a woman who tries to find her own way in the world as she falls for Yuri while dealing with the fact that they’re both married. Christie also plays things quietly while being a woman who starts out as a victim to Victor’s advance only to become someone very strong and defiant as it’s one of Christie’s best performances. Omar Sharif is excellent as Yuri Zhivago, a man who dreams of great things only to be hit by the revolution as he is torn with the two women he loves. While it may not be as great as the performance he gave in Lawrence of Arabia, Sharif does manage to be a very compelling lead as he has great chemistry with Julie Christie and Geraldine Chaplin.
Doctor Zhivago is a towering yet evocative film from David Lean that features top-notch performances from Omar Sharif, Julie Christie, and Geraldine Chaplin. While it may not be as exciting as Lawrence of Arabia, it is among one of Lean’s finest films as well as one of the great romantic films of the 1960s. It’s a film that is very ambitious and allows its audience to be engaged by the scenery and events that happens in the film. It may not be perfect but the ambition that Lean goes for with this is film is something that is missed in a lot of films of the 2010s. In the end, Doctor Zhivago is a brilliant romantic epic from the always revered David Lean.
David Lean Films: In Which We Serve - (This Happy Breed) - Blithe Spirit - Brief Encounter - Great Expectations (1946 film) - Oliver Twist (1948 film) - The Passionate Friends - Madeleine (1950 film) - The Sound Barrier - Hobson’s Choice - (Summertime) - The Bridge on the River Kwai - Lawrence of Arabia - Ryan’s Daughter - (Lost and Found: The Story of Cook’s Anchor) - A Passage to India - (The Auteurs #75: David Lean)
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