Doctor Zhivago

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02/12/15

It’s hard for me to accept but it’s been fifty years since I saw this film. It was in 1965 in a Chinese cinema in Singapore, where the idea of a snowbound landscape seemed an impossible fantasy. I remember, as a boy, being absolutely blown away by the experience. It was one of the first ‘serious’ films I’d ever watched, though I also seem to remember that many of the critics of the time were rather unkind to David Lean’s interpretation of Boris Pasternak’s best-selling novel, accusing it of being a ‘chocolate box’ movie.

So it’s great to be able to reassess it on the big screen and to realise that whole sections of the film have remained with me, imprinted indelibly on my unconscious mind; and to confirm that this really is an ‘old school’ epic of admirable power and grandeur. I didn’t know it then, of course, but Lean had one heck of a struggle to realise his vision. Unable to film in Russia, he had to make do with locations in Madrid, (in summer) his actors sweating under layers of fur. Other shots were secured in Finland, Canada and Portugal. A cavalry charge across a frozen lake was recreated by placing a cast iron sheet across a dry Spanish river bed and sprinkling it with plaster dust.  Not that any of that is evident. You’ll rarely see a more convincing evocation of winter landscapes.

Dr Zhivago is essentially a poignant love story, set against the turbulent events of a changing Russia. It begins with Yevgraf (Alec Guinness) a policeman in the ‘new’ Soviet Union, trying to find the lost daughter of his half brother, celebrated poet, Yuri Zhivago and his lover, Lara. Could it be ‘The Girl’ (Rita Tushingham)? From there, the story cuts back to Yuri’s tragic childhood and then moves on to the tumultuous events of the First World War and the Russian Revolution, where the lives of both Yuri and Lara are forever linked and transformed by the horrors of war.

It’s totally engaging, even at a bum-numbing 193 minutes. (Those with weak bladders will be glad to hear that the film still features its original fifteen minute intermission). In the title role, Omar Sharif, fresh off Lawrence of Arabia, provides a remarkable calm at the centre of the cinematic storm, while as Lara, Julie Christie has never been more radiant. Add a stellar selection of supporting actors – Alec Guinness, Rod Steiger, Tom Courtenay, Ralph Richardson, and you have a powerful film that dazzles as much today as it did in the decade in which it was released.

But it’s the magnificent set pieces that really linger in the memory: a savage cavalry attack on a protest march, with Zhivago’s tortured expression conveying the true horror of the situation unfolding in front of him; a packed railway station, where Zhivago and his family fight to board a train to the Urals; and a remote country house transformed into a gleaming ice palace by the extremes of the Russian winter. What’s even more remarkable is that this was all achieved without the benefits of CGI and other contemporary special effects – Doctor Zhivago is a tribute to all the technicians, set builders and costume designers who toiled to make David Lean’s remarkable vision a reality. Fifty years on, it still stands as a beacon of extraordinary creativity and a tribute to a man’s uncanny ability to film epic stories.

Chocolate box? Well, if that’s the case, tuck in. This is a delicious confection, as tasty now as it ever was.

5 stars

Philip Caveney

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