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Monday, February 8, 2010

Oscarstravaganza: Doctor Zhivago


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Winner: Best Cinematography, 1965

Director: David Lean
Starring: Omar Sharif, Julie Christie, Rod Steiger

Big screens were made for David Lean's epics. I would imagine that even an IMAX screen could barely contain them. Doctor Zhivago is one of his biggest, most lavish productions, though it ultimately lacks the gravitas of his best films, The Bridge on the River Kwai and Lawrence of Arabia. Still, the strength of its production values makes up somewhat for the weaknesses of its script and much like with his previous films, Lean's ability to craft a story makes the time fly by.

Based on the novel by Boris Pasternak, the film tells the story of Yuri Zhivago (Omar Sharif), born just in time to be caught in the transition from Czarist Russia to the communist Soviet Union. He's a young boy when his mother dies, leaving him in the care of her friends Alexander (Ralph Richardson) and Anna (Siobhan McKenna) and he grows up with their daughter Tonya (Geraldine Chaplin), whom he eventually marries. With the outbreak of World War I, Yuri is sent to the front where he officially meets Lara (Julie Christie) who is working as a nurse and trying to locate her husband Pasha (Tom Courtenay). Until this point Yuri and Lara's lives have brought them within each other's vicinities, but they've never actually been able to speak to each other. Now, spending a great deal of time together in an intense situation, they fall in love, though it remains unconsummated. When the war ends Yuri returns to Tonya and their son and Lara sets off on her own course.

Moscow has changed in the time that Yuri has been gone. The Russian Revolution has taken place and the communists are now in charge, turning the Zhivago house into a tenement where Zhivago, Tonya, their son, and Alexander are forced to share but a single room. Eventually the family moves to Varynko, in the Ural Mountains, where Alexander has a country estate and where Zhiavgo learns that Lara and her daughter have set up residence in the next town over. They begin their affair in earnest but the always shifting political forces tear them apart at every turn.

All of this really just scratches the surface of Doctor Zhivago's plot, which also includes a framing device involving Yuri's half-brother (Alec Guinness), a girl who may or may not be Yuri and Lara's illegitimate child, Pasha's transformation into the iron fisted Red leader Strelnikov, and Lara's relationship with Komorovsky (Rod Steiger), a one-time "advisor" to her mother whom she alternates between needing and despising. There is also, of course, a cursory history lesson about the political changes sweeping through Russia, though the film never delves too deeply into these issues. Doctor Zhivago is about the Russian Revolution and civil war in the same way that Gone With The Wind is about the American civil war and reconstruction. Both films treat these events not as history worth exploring but as romantic backdrops for the intense passions of their protagonists.

The problem with Doctor Zhivago is that it doesn't really feel that passionate. We're given several cues to make us think otherwise (my favourite comes from the beginning, when Yuri and Lara pass each other on a crowded tram and the film cuts to a shot of sparks flying from the cable), but the romance ultimately feels a bit watery. Lean is very good at telling stories about men and their relationships with each other, but he seems less sure how to convey the complexities of relationships between men and women and, indeed, the relationship between Yuri and Lara takes up a relatively small amount of the screen time. The most dynamic characters are the ones on the sidelines - Steiger's self-important and self-loathing Komorovsky, Courtenay's hard line Pasha/Strelnikov, the minor characters who show up for a scene or two and then disappear back into the tapestry of the story. In comparison Yuri and Lara are a bit boring, their concerns rather run of the mill.

What saves the film is the grand spectacle of it. Lean may misstep here and there in telling the story, but he remains a master at composing brilliant shots, some of them absolutely staggering in their beauty. The one that most immediately comes to mind is Yuri and Lara's entrance into the ice palace, so delicately, perfectly rendered that you can almost feel the chill. I'm also very fond of the shot of the shovel breaking the ice on the train to reveal the countryside, and the shot of a sunflower fading into a shot of Lara's face. Lean is such a masterful visual storyteller that you feel compelled to forgive him his flaws. If Doctor Zhivago never reaches the level of Bridge on the River Kwai or Lawrence of Arabia, it is still worth seeing for a variety of other reasons and it has aged fairly well.

2 comments:

Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

I need to rewatch this, but I remember it fondly and Lean reminds me of Anthony Minghella (especially in The English Patient which I love).

Norma Desmond said...

Yay, another person who loves The English Patient! I find that that's kind of rare amongst film fans.