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Blu-ray Review: Doctor Zhivago (1965)

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The Film

Epic films have their share of inherent flaws. They often tend to lack nuance despite the sublimity that their grand scope all but ensures, but David Lean discovered that he could have it both ways and created some of the most memorable epics ever — both magnanimously stirring and intimately personal

While Doctor Zhivago doesn’t quite get the same adoration that Lean’s The Bridge on the River Kwai or Lawrence of Arabia do, it’s a film that’s in the same class, and it achieves a visual grandeur that has been rarely matched for its sumptuousness.

Told against the backdrop of the Russian Revolution, Doctor Zhivago is based on the novel by Boris Pasternak, and tells the story of poet and doctor Yuri Zhivago (Omar Sharif). Amidst the outbreak of WWI, Zhivago marries his childhood friend Tonya (Geraldine Chaplin), enlists and serves as a battlefield doctor and falls in love with the beautiful Lara (Julie Christie), a nurse whom he had previously met in Moscow.

Doctor Zhivago is certainly guilty of romanticizing history, and subordinates its hazily defined historical moments to the love between individuals, but Robert Bolt’s screenplay has a sweeping quality that draws you right in. Does it reduce the importance of history? Perhaps, but it’s hard to care when looking at Lean’s gorgeous compositions.

The passage of time is conveyed with a visual eloquence that plants snowy landscapes next to golden fields, and it’s with this scale that Lean reminds us that these characters are simply being swept along by history. Zhivago’s story matters, but he is not an agency-charged hero defining history around him, and it’s this subtlety that gives Lean’s epic the nuance that helps set it apart.

Sharif and Christie often come across as larger-than-life presences on the screen, but it’s the supporting actors that really make an impression, especially Rod Steiger’s thoroughly loathsome lawyer Komarovsky and Chaplin’s very moving Tonya. Tom Courtenay also does strong work as the young Bolshevik Pasha, who wins Lara’s heart despite his emotional asceticism.

Doctor Zhivago occasionally has trouble breaking out of its literary bounds, and nowhere is this more evident than in the somewhat flaccid frame story featuring Zhivago’s half-brother (Alec Guinness) searching for the illegitimate child of Yuri and Lara.

Still, the film is the kind of large-scale masterpiece that Hollywood has little hope of recreating today. Lean delivers stunning image after stunning image, making the nearly three-and-a-half hour Zhivago a totally immersive filmic experience.

The Blu-ray Disc

Doctor Zhivago is presented in 1080p high definition with an aspect ratio of 2.4:1. It’s immediately apparent just how significant of an improvement the Blu-ray is over the previous two-disc DVD version, which had been out of print for some time. Images are rendered with an astonishing sharpness and clarity, while retaining a rich, film-like feel. Early scenes showing workers on the dam project reveal superb black levels and contrast, with deep blacks and strong color definition even in low-light scenes. Wide shots featuring Lean’s gorgeous landscape compositions and close-ups on faces show equal levels of detail. There’s barely any image softness to be found at all, and the obviously excellent source materials have been translated into a wonderful Blu-ray presentation.

The 5.1 DTS-HD track is also a winner, featuring Maurice Jarre’s instantly recognizable score prominently, but also giving good range to train sounds and occasional bursts of gunfire. Dialogue is clean and crisp from the front channel, and the mix overall comes across as quite weighty and substantial.

Special Features

Several new features are included on this 45th Anniversary edition, including a 40-minute two-part retrospective on the film, featuring interviews from a number of filmmakers and producers. The feature is inexplicably presented in standard def though, even though it was recently created. Clips from the film shown during the featurette pale in comparison to their remarkable high def counterparts. Also new is the Blu-ray book packaging which includes 44 pages of photographs and production information and an eight-track CD sampler of Jarre’s score.

Included on the Blu-ray disc is a DVD port of the commentary track by Sharif, Steiger and Lean’s widow, Sandra Lean. Disc two is a DVD disc that includes the same extras as the previous DVD edition, including an hour-long making-of, vintage featurettes, interviews and screen tests as well as the theatrical trailer.

The Bottom Line

The new bonus material isn’t much to get excited about, but the visual presentation of Zhivago on Blu-ray is stunning and provides the only criterion necessary for an immediate upgrade.

[Note: Doctor Zhivago is also available on demand or for download on iTunes.]

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About Dusty Somers

Dusty Somers is a Seattle-based editor and writer. He is a member of the Online Film Critics Society and Seattle Theater Writers.