The life of a Russian physician and poet who, although married to another, falls in love with a political activist's wife and experiences hardship during the First World War and then the October Revolution.
After settling his differences with a Japanese PoW camp commander, a British colonel co-operates to oversee his men's construction of a railway bridge for their captors - while oblivious to a plan by the Allies to destroy it.
During the Russian Revolution, Yuri Zhivago, is a young doctor who has been raised by his aunt and uncle following his father's suicide. Yuri falls in love with beautiful Lara Guishar, who has been having an affair with her mother's lover, Victor Komarovsky, an unscrupulous businessman. Yuri, however, ends up marrying his cousin, Tonya. But when he and Lara meet again years later, the spark of love reignites.Written by
"Doctor Zhivago" is a fascinating touchstone of what made 1960s cinema uniquely great, without ever being great itself. It is unique, though.
Yuri Zhivago (Omar Sharif) pursues a happy life as a physician and poet in Czarist Moscow, until fate, war, and revolution drive him from home and family to a woman who turns out to be the love of his life, Lara (Julie Christie). But will those same forces contrive to tear them apart?
Directed by David Lean in such grand style as to invite unfair comparisons to his previous masterpiece, "Lawrence Of Arabia", "Doctor Zhivago" is about as sumptuous as film-making gets. Whether its the hooded mink on Geraldine Chaplin's Tonya as she gets off a train or the baroque velvet finery of a fancy restaurant where Lara finds herself courted by the consummate political insider Kamarovsky (Rod Steiger), one is continually bombarded with the fact no expense was spared bringing this vision of the Boris Pasternak novel to the screen.
The story covers a lot of ground in more than three hours, and though it does drag at times, Lean and screenwriter Robert Bolt nourish their production with much of the same visual and verbal eloquence that nourished "Lawrence". Maurice Jarre's eerie score, centered by the haunting "Lara's Theme", works at times like musical heroin, jolting you back into the movie just as your attention starts to drift. Cinematographer Freddie Young uses windows and mirrors as a constant visual reference, as if to underscore the movie's concern with the shallowness of appearances, but at least through the first two hours, what grabs you about "Zhivago" is its great sense of depth.
But "sense of depth" doesn't exactly equal depth itself, especially when you get to the final hour, and the romance that is supposed to be the fulcrum of the film. Sharif on a DVD commentary suggests "Zhivago" is a woman's movie the way "Lawrence" is more for men. It's a sage thought, as one notices the rational side is pushed aside, along with Zhivago's wife and family, in favor of an all-or-nothing romance with Lara. Neither Bolt nor Christie do much to justify this gambit, however, and we are left with more images of windows for Sharif to stare out of, looking poetic.
As Sharif himself plays Zhivago as a gentle, uncomplicated soul, there is ample room for the supporting players to outshine the leads. Steiger sinks his teeth in the film's meatiest part, a cagey, brutal man whose passion for Lara is at least as interesting as that of Zhivago's, his lips forming a cruel scowl but his eyes suggesting a secret hurt.
"Don't fool yourself into thinking this was rape", he tells Lara after one brutal encounter. "That would flatter us both." Ouch!
Chaplin is also very good as the other woman in Zhivago's mess of a life, winning your affection with her unguarded smile and uncomplicated love for Yuri, which he is just good enough to know he doesn't deserve. Klaus Kinski pops up winningly at one point as a forced laborer, sneering as only he can. There is great cast work by the smallest players.
If you want a film that bears witness to the cruelty of the Communist Revolution, and being caught up in social forces beyond one's control, "Doctor Zhivago" is all that and more. As a romantic saga it feels hollow at its center, and stretched out too far for all but the most patient of viewers. Yet what do I know? I'm just a guy.
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