Doctor Zhivago is a strange film. It’s undeniably, inevitably, expensively and melodramatically an important British “picture”. But is it really a masterpiece?
I was lucky enough to trudge through the horizontal London rain to see the new restoration of David Lean’s 200-minute epic last week (still, that’s nothing compared to the bum-numbing Das Boot). It was the first time I’d seen the film. Of course, I’d heard about Doctor Zhivago, but only in the frame of “that one about Russia that isn’t as good as Lawrence of Arabia”. Quite.
Based on a novel of the same name by Boris Pasternak, the action follows the eponymous Yuri Zhivago, played by Omar Sharif, as he experiences various levels of hardship and happiness during the First World War, October Revolution and Russian Civil War. This startling historical ambition is set against a swirling, balalaika-heavy soundtrack by Maurice Jarre. In fact, the main refrain, Lara’s Theme, is probably one of the most famous in cinematic history. Here it is (complete with cheesy edits) – just in case you’ve been living under a rock since 1965.
My screening of the film was full of an appreciative and bizarre mix of the elderly and hipster-types. Their cooing, laughter and ostentatiously loud crying added to the experience and, I must admit, I also found myself being drawn into the schmalz…at times. I add the caveat because there are a whole host of niggling problems with Doctor Zhivago that rudely slapped me out of my soppy reverie.
First, the acting. “How dare you,” I hear you splutter from your leather armchair by the fire, your monocle askew and brandy sploshing out of its glass. “That’s the cream of British acting talent you’re badmouthing, old bean.” Whoa, steady on. I’m not saying that everyone is bad, just that the quality wildly differs. Alec Guinness (below) is excellent, as usual. Julie Christie is good, but, at the end of the day, playing Julie Christie. Omar Sharif either smiles or cries, nothing in-between. Rod Steiger is lecherous and menacing. Tom Courtenay does well with a, frankly, clunky role as the main antagonist Pasha. Geraldine Chaplin is, unfortunately, one-dimensional as the true victim of the piece, Tonya.
It’s the scenery that enthrals and sticks in the memory. David Lean, in a fit of Quixote-esque fantasy, constructed the frosty plains of war-torn Russia from scratch. In Spain. In the summer. Using marble dust as snow. Lean even built a stretch of a Moscow street, for heaven’s sake. They don’t make ego-maniacal directors like that anymore. Okay, with the exception of Michael Bay…
But, boy, does it pay off. My viewing companion pointed out that the seasons were completely askew (dead leaves on the ground in spring), but that’s part of the chaotic, liberty-taking beauty. So what? The fabricated winter wonderland (no, not the naff collection of “German” huts currently cluttering London’s Hyde Park) is utterly captivating and believable. It steals the scene from the actors. For example, in the section where Yuri and Lara elope to the frozen, abandoned form of Varykino, I found myself marvelling at the snow cascading down the interior stairs, rather than the plight of the protagonists. “Oo, look at that dusty chandelier.” Fuck the luvvy-duvvy stuff, give me a bit of fake ice any day.
I wholeheartedly recommend that you head to your local Cineworld, Goopleplex or Snozzcentre to see the remastered version of Doctor Zhivago. It’s one of the most beguiling, befuddling and beautiful British films – come for the varied performances, stay for the breathtaking scenery.
WORDS: MAX FIGGETT
In the mood for a more restrained love story? Check out Max’s review of The Lunchbox.