Director: David Lean
200 min (+ interval) Digital 4K (in NFT1, 2K elsewhere)
PG A BFI release. Part of BFI Love.
David Lean’s sweeping, star-crossed Russian Revolution love drama Dr Zhivago, returns to the big screen this week having been given a digital upgrade by the BFI for its 50th anniversary. This is a film that sits slap bang in the middle of the old studio epic tradition; mammoth sets, a heart-tugging score, tortured gazes across gorgeous vistas, and a haul of five Oscars. Lean, of course, had form in this type of filmmaking, having helmed the equally gargantuan Lawrence of Arabia earlier in 1962, as well as A Passage to India and The Bridge over the River Kwai. The film, adapted from the novel by Boris Pasternak, is undeniably ravishing to look at, even if it feels at times almost too big for its own good. This is a picture with a scope that is almost insane to comprehend; a love story played out over many years against the backdrop of the earth-shattering events of the Communist takeover of Russia. Zhivago was actually released to mixed reviews at the time, and it is an uneven film in many ways. But it is an experience worth having at least once. This is filmmaking as spectacle.
The film opens in a Tsarist Russia just starting to tremble from the rumbling discontent of the revolution-hungry masses. Young medical student and amateur poet Yuri (Omar Sharif) watches the marches and protests in Moscow from the balcony of his wealthy family’s mansion, worried but seemingly disconnected from it all. Then he meets, by chance, the stunning Lara (Julie Christie), a studious but fallen girl from a poor family. There is tension between the two right away, but fate – and the Revolution – keep getting in the way. Both Yuri and Lara are married to other people, and Lara is also being pursued but the ogre-like political fixer and wheeler-dealer Komorovsky. The Revolution, the World War and the civil wars that came after sweep the two of them away in different directions, as their home of Moscow changes forever under the boot heel of the Soviets. Across the vast expanse of Russia the two lose and find each other again, but can they ever truly be together without being hunted by their enemies or tormented by their guilt?
As the two lovers, it can’t be denied that Sharif and Christie look as handsome as the snowy landscape they are frequently framed against. But this writer still found them less compelling as lead characters than, say, Peter O’Toole in Lawrence of Arabia. Luckily, what Zhivago does have is a strong roster of supporting players to back them up. Tom Courtenay, recently seen in 45 Years (reviewed here), is icily effective as the fanatical Soviet commander Pasha, the doomed-to-be-disappointed husband of Lara who’s revolutionary vigour eventually consumes him. Rod Steiger is equally memorable as the brutish, venal but still pathetic Komarovsky, who has a finger in every pie but cannot leverage this power into making Lara love him.
Freddie Young’s ‘Scope cinematography is indeed sumptuous, looking even more dazzling in this new restoration. The film boasts the kind of immense and elaborately-decorated sets (how much fake snow did they get through?) that the digital era has long consigned to history, with the recreation of Moscow being particularly memorable, though more due to its scale rather than its believability. If you want awe-inspiring landscapes, this film showcases one about every five seconds. That famous Maurice Jarre score is memorably sweeping, although hardly subtle, but then this film’s excess, visually and sonically, is part of the appeal. This is long film to sit through (the new print keeps the interval) but your eyes and ears deserve the treat.