The story revolves around the dreamy physician and poet, Yuri Zhivago, and his dramatic experiences during the tumult of the Russian Revolution. The story is told in flashback mode during later Communist years by Yuri's half brother, Yevgraf, a Soviet Army officer, to the young woman, Tanya, who may be the long lost daughter of Yuri and his lover, Lara. As a sensitive young boy, Yuri's mother dies and he is adopted by a foster family, the Gromekos. Later reaching adulthood, he studies medicine and marries his childhood sweetheart, Tonya, and they have a little boy, Sasha. However, earlier at their engagement party, he has found himself strangely drawn to a beautiful & mysterious woman named Lara. Soon all their personal lives are thrown into turmoil by World War I and the Bolshevik Revolution.
The handsome Omar Sharif is brilliantly empathetic in the role of Zhivago, masterfully conveying his character's emotions. Who can forget his intensely expressive, tear filled eyes at some of the more emotional moments, especially with snowflakes melting on them? A physician but also a poet, Yuri has a deep appreciation of the beauty around him. His gentleness and idealism stand in sharp contrast to the horrific violence of war and revolution, as Yuri witnesses such atrocities as dismemberment and cannibalism. Also, this is a man who remains very much an individual despite the Bolshevik's philosophies of collectivism.
That era's devastating events unfold, including the Bolshevik Revolution and subsequent Civil War between the Tsarist Whites & the Communist Reds. However, the main conflict here is internal within Yuri's own heart, as he is torn between fidelity and passion. He deeply loves his sweet, gentle, and dependable wife, Tonya, and struggles to remain faithful. Yet he is tempted by a forbidden passion for the alluring Lara, a nurse at the wartime army hospital where both are caring for wounded soldiers. Lara serves as his muse, speaks to his soul, and is the inspiration for his poetry. Unlike most modern cinematic tales of infidelity which involve little restraint or guilt, Yuri and Lara desperately seek personal integrity as they are repeatedly brought together (and separated) by the upheaval of war and revolution. Surely if Yuri is 'the worst of sinners, then he is the worst of sufferers also'.
The two women in Yuri's life, wife and mistress, stand in sharp contrast, though both come across as sympathetic characters. The lovely Geraldine Chaplain portrays his ladylike, aristocratic wife, Tonya, who is well bred and has been schooled abroad. The daughter of the bourgeois Gromeko, she is actually Yuri's step sister, which might understandably tend to elicit more platonic than passionate feelings from her husband. Yuri and Lara succumb to their passions even as the blameless Tonya is pregnant with Yuri's second child. Tonya is a warm, loving wife and devoted mother, undeserving of her husband's infidelity.
Julie Christie plays the gorgeous & enigmatic Lara, a woman whose station in life makes her vulnerable to misuse by men, yet she possesses a genuine resourcefulness and inner strength. As a teenage girl, she is seduced and violated by the lecherous Victor Komarovsky, a despicable politician and her own mother's lover. She falls under repeated abuse by this vile & contemptible character, who calls Lara a slut and treats her as such. Later she is fiancé & then wife to the misguided idealist and activist, Pasha, who holds intense political ideologies which become more crucial than his wife to him. Pasha later becomes Strelnikov, the obsessive Bolshevik officer who eventually comes into confrontation with Zhivago. During much of the tumult, Lara entrusts her own & Pasha's daughter, Katya, into the care of others. Of course the legend of Lara lives on musically in Maurice Jarre's lovely, haunting Lara's Theme.
Supporting cast members include Rod Steiger, who is perfect as the villainous Komarovsky, and Tom Courtenay as Pasha / Strelnikov, a shy and pure individual who earns the abused Lara's respect and love, later going on to become a cold hearted revolutionary. Alec Guiness portrays Yuri's half brother, Yevgraf, and Ralph Richardson is Tonya's aristocratic & gentlemanly father, Alexander Gromeko.
This film has amazing Oscar winning cinematography throughout. During World War I and the Revolution, there are vivid scenes of battle, mass desertion, and endless march through the desolate, blizzard ridden Siberian wasteland. Also visually stunning is the spectacular train ride Yuri and his family must make from Moscow to the Urals, site of the family dachau. However, surely most viewers' truly unforgettable pictures are the snowy white sleigh ride and the magnificent ice castle at Varykino. No other film can compare in its depiction of winter scenery. This sweeping panorama, the era's tumultuous political events, and the emotional portrait of one sensitive man's experience of them, create a visual masterpiece and a truly immortal screen saga.