Wednesday 9 March 2016

Movie Review: Doctor Zhivago (1965)

An epic love story set against the backdrop of the communist revolution in Russia, Doctor Zhivago pits the passionate individual against the oppressive system, but is also too long, and its main protagonist is more a spectator rather than an instigator.

The film is told in flashback, and starts in the Soviet era at a hydroelectric dam with Lieutenant General Yevgraf Zhivago (Alec Guinness) questioning innocent-looking worker Tanya Komarova (Rita Tushingham) to determine whether she is the daughter of his half-brother Dr. Yuri Zhivago (Omar Sharif). Yevgraf recounts Yuri's story, starting when he was orphaned at a young age and taken in by the well-to-do Moscow-based family of the kindly Alexander Gromeko (Ralph Richardson). Yuri grows up to be a doctor and a poet, and eventually marries Gromeko's daughter Tonya (Geraldine Chaplin).

In parallel and also in Moscow, the beautiful 17 year old Lara Antipova (Julie Christie) is from a working class family and the unwilling mistress of Victor Komarovsky (Rod Steiger), a member of the elite classes with shadowy connections to both the Czarist government and the Bolshevik revolutionaries. Lara eventually marries her real love Pasha Antipov (Tom Courtenay), an idealistic young man advocating for workers' rights and actively supporting the revolution.

The Great War erupts, Pasha is lost on the battlefield and Yuri meets Lara at a front-line hospital where they work together for 6 months. The revolution interrupts the war and turns Russia upside down. Yuri returns to Tonya in Moscow, but they soon embark on an arduous train ride beyond the Ural mountains to try and start a new life. With the country gripped by civil war, Yuri will reconnect with Lara under unexpected but dangerous circumstances.

An adaptation of the celebrated Boris Pasternak novel directed by David Lean, Dr. Zhivago is epic in scale and scope. The film clocks in at close to 200 minutes and features a large cast of characters, stunning landscapes, scenes of battle, revolution, and lavish parties, and a gruelling train ride that seems to unfold in real time, complete with a surreal and irrelevant Klaus Kinski appearance. This is an impressive and engrossing experience, but it is also tiresome. It is difficult to justify the turgid running time and the slow pacing, with everything appearing to happen in slow motion.

More troublesome is the rather passive central character. Yuri Zhivago is an ultimately peripheral character who witnesses great events happening around him. On several occasions he is swept up by history, his life trajectory altered by others. Even the central theme of love and infatuation is unfulfilling. Zhivago's dubious feat is trapping himself into a love triangle, Tonya wholly undeserving of his betrayal and Lara gaining his affection through mere presence. Yuri gets a few brief scenes as a doctor, and no meaningful demonstrations of his talents as a poet.

The film succeeds better in depicting the struggle between the individual and the collective. The post-revolution scenes in Moscow are a brilliantly grey portrayal of the all the failures of communism quickly rising to the surface, the rabble believing that their time has come, oblivious that the country's functionality is grinding to a halt and intellectual starvation and physical exhaustion await. Zhivago remains consistent in expressing his doubt about communism's logic before, during and after the revolution, opinions that will force him to leave Moscow when he clearly becomes a misfit.

Omar Sharif almost sleepwalks through the film but finds a few moments of genuine emotion. Christie matches him with a docile, low-key performance that does not convince as muse. Rod Steiger delivers the most energetic role, and on more than one occasion single-handedly pumps sweat, conviction and passion to jump-start the languid proceedings. Victor Komarovsky emerges as potentially the most interesting and complex character in the story, perhaps more deserving of his own book and movie.

The film's weaknesses do not diminish Doctor Zhivago as a grand technical marvel, an ambitious and unconstrained artistic achievement, with an iconic Maurice Jarre music score used in proper doses. But it is also a film with not quite enough happening at its core to justify all the impressive packaging.

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