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Movie Review: Doctor Zhivago (1965)

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David Lean's Doctor Zhivago is an absolute masterpiece. From the moment the film starts with Sir Alec Guinness searching for his niece you know you're in for something special. Of course if you're familiar with director Lean's other work such as Lawrence of Arabia or The Bridge on the River Kwai, then you knew that going in.

The film takes place right in the middle of the Bolshevik revolution in Russia. Omar Sharif plays Yuri Zhivago, a young doctor who, having been orphaned at a young age, grew up with the family of one of his mother's close friends. Yuri is in love with and soon to marry the daughter of this family, Tonya (Geraldine Chaplin).

Lara (played by the wonderful Julie Christie at the height of her beauty) is a young woman working towards a scholarship and living with her mother and her mother's lover Victor (Rod Steiger). Victor has eyes for the beautiful young Lara, and makes it known one night after dinner at a fancy restaurant. This starts a very dominant and tumultuous relationship between Lara and Victor.

Lara is not fond of Victor; he is a very brash and domineering man and has no respect for her. On Christmas Eve, after Victor has raped her, Lara hunts him down at a party and shoots him in a failed attempt to kill him. Victor refuses to have her arrested, because despite his attitude he still cares for her, and she is led off by Pasha (Tom Courtenay), a revolutionary and a man who is soon to become her husband. Yuri and Tonya are also guests at this party, and witness the whole scene.

World War I has now broken out, and Yuri is a doctor on the front lines. While retreating from the battlefield, Yuri and his comrades meet their replacements. When the two groups meet up, insanity ensues and it seems that the revolution has started as the troops attack and murder their COs. There are several that are wounded or killed, and Yuri feels it is his duty to stay behind and tend to the casualties. Also remaining to help is Lara, who is a nurse and was headed out to the front lines to search for her husband. The two of them are then summoned to a military hospital, where there are dozens of sick and wounded that need tending to and Yuri and Lara are the only ones around to do it. Over the next six months the two of them become very close, but the relationship stays platonic.

Upon his arrival home Moscow is now in a state of total communism. Thirteen families are now living in the home that he left, and Tonya and her father and his child have only one room of their own to live in as a family. After a rough night, Yuri finally meets his half brother who advises him to take his family and head to the country.

On the way to the country, Yuri runs into Pasha, who is now a prominent man in the communist party. Yuri had been captured by Pasha’s guards who thought he was there to attempt assassination, and Yuri told him to go get his wife, Lara, who would vouch for him. Pasha then informed Yuri that he had not seen Lara since the war, and that she is now living in a town very near Yuri’s destination.

At first Yuri has no intention of getting in touch with Lara. He loves Tonya and his son very much, and does not wish to betray them. However after a very long winter, the temptation proves too much and Yuri rides into town to find Lara. The chemistry between them immediately sparks up and the two of them start up the relationship that both of them had wanted for so long.

Although the bulk of the film is a romance, the backdrop of the revolution and war is a strong thematic element. In many films you only have the main story that has any quality with the backdrop only there to provide a sense of time and place. For example, in Pan’s Labyrinth, we have the wonderful story of Ofelia and her world of imagination, but then there’s the story of Civil War in Spain, which is much weaker and far less original — necessary, but not up to the quality of the story of Ofelia. We are very fortunate that with Doctor Zhivago both storylines are fantastic.

When this film came out many critics complained that while it was a beautifully constructed picture, the story just wasn’t there and that there wasn’t a point to the film. Although I disagree with them (I thought the story was fantastic), I don’t feel that a film needs to have that deep a story if the characters are interesting enough, which they are. Zhivago is the flawed hero of the film; you really care for him even though he’s an adulterer because you see that he really is a good man. Lara has had so much undeserved trouble thrown her way by each man in her life and the constantly in turmoil government that it is amazing she is able to stay as full of life and wonderful as she is.

The other characters may not have as much to offer as Yuri and Lara, but they are still deep nonetheless. Even if you do feel that Doctor Zhivago is pointless you can still appreciate its beauty. David Lean’s cinematography is absolutely gorgeous; the way he is able to shoot landscapes is incredible. It’s like watching a painting in motion. Julie Christie gives an absolutely magnificent performance, really conveying each hardship that comes her way.

The film is long at three hours and twenty minutes, but it really just flies by. The story is so intriguing, and the characters so deep and interesting, that the film could be six hours and you wouldn't get bored. I really admire Robert Bolt’s screenplay. The way he is able to write a romance without any instance of cheesiness is incredible. I really cannot say enough good things about this picture; you'll just have to see it for yourself.

Grade: A 

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  • http://canadiancinephile.com/ Jordan Richardson

    One of my absolutely favourites. Nice review, Brian.

  • hugo

    Terrific review Brian. As a male whose formative teen years were in the 60’s, you need to know many of us fell head over heels for Julie Christie as Laura. Revisiting the film years later I was struck how good the acting was by many of the characters in particular Rod Steiger as Victor Khameroffsky. Omar Shariff is an equally strong lead opposite Christie. Sparks fly aplenty between the two captured on camera sometimes only with a brief facial expression of emotion as when Laura turns and stares down the revolutionary when he makes disparaging comments about Dr. Zhivago as they leave in the medical carriage from the makeshift war hospital.
    The pained expressions displayed by Omar Shariff are splendid drama, his eyes telegraphing his torn emotional ties that he feels towards his devoted wife and the abused Laura who has captured a bit of his heart.
    The background of the beginnings of the Russian Revolution are instructive and powerful as well. Christie, Steiger and Shariff all deserved academy best actor nominations in my opinion.
    The measure of a great film is how it can be watched over and over again and still connect you emotionally to it. Dr. Zhivago does that for me each time I have watched the film over the years.
    I would safely venture a bet that there was a very high incidence of babies named Laura during 1965-66 due to the connection so many made to the Laura character in Dr. Zhivago.
    It ranks for me in my Top 3 Films of all time!! Thank-you David Lean!!

  • Igor

    Zhivago is a very grown-up book. Often incomprehensible to the naive. But, like Tolstoi, very rewarding to adult readers.

    I believe that her name was “Lara”, not Laura.