From the List of Shame Files: Doctor Zhivago

Last week, the Bryn Mawr Film Institute had a screening of the new 4K remaster of David Lean’s 1965 film adaptation of Doctor Zhivago. It’s a film that’s been nagging at my List of Shame for some time, so the opportunity to see the 3 hour, 17 minute epic (with overture and intermission) for the first time in a theater I jumped at the chance. BMFI pulled out all the stops for the event, including a white Russian in the ticket price, amplifying the festive atmosphere for the nearly sold out event.

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First, I want to say that the presentation was absolutely gorgeous. While there is definitely something special about seeing something that was shot on film projected on the same media, the 4K restoration is visually arresting. It still manages to have that ‘film look’ while being extremely clean. In particular, the colors look incredible, with the bright red of the Bolsheviks jumping out of the screen against the gorgeous sets and landscapes. The skintones also look natural, which tends to be a problem area in my experience. And Maurice Jarre’s score sounds wonderful when filling such a large space.

Trailer for the restoration:

Anyway, what did I think of the movie itself? As a student of history, both cinematic and general history, Doctor Zhivago hits all of those buttons for me. The film assumes a general knowledge of Russian revolutionary history, from the first World War through the Great Purge of Joseph Stalin. While not is strictly necessary to follow the story of Zhivago and Lara, it provides context to some of the obstacles they face, enhancing the story we are shown on screen. While the film has been criticized for not taking the history seriously enough, the intention is clear. Lean wants to capitalize on the specific imagery tied to these events, that is, the iconography of it is more important than the realism. This gives everything a romanticized, theatrical feel, which is appropriate for the story. Lean is largely uninterested in the politics, but it would be difficult to leave the film with a positive impression of the Soviet Union.

Watching the film for the first time very much removed from the Cold War context (I was 3½ when the Berlin Wall came down) amplifies this impression. The novel was published in 1957, after the author, Boris Pasternak, had completely soured on the Soviet state. This colors everything in the story, from the Stalin-era bookends, all the way back to the pre-Revolutionary period with an eye toward what awaits these characters. Even the messier aspects of these events, the mob violence, the mob suppression, the unruliness of the new regime, are presented with a poetic and theatrical air rather than the gritty realism we expect from period pieces today. Fifty years after its original release, the film feels like the way I picture in my head when my grandparents share stories from their life, not the way they actually happened so much as a dramatic cinematic version of the real thing.

The lush art direction and cinematography serves this notion as well. The film’s intricate sets, from the Gromeko’s home in Moscow to the famous ‘ice palace’ at Varykino are amazing to behold. They aren’t an attempt at realism, but for maximum visual impact. And they succeed every single time. The on location shots are equally satisfying, expertly utilizing the Spanish and Canadian countryside to reinforce the scale underlying the story and historical events. Russia is a gigantic, grand country, and in Doctor Zhivago it melts together with the power of Hollywood, daring the audience to not get lost inside the film.

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Sadly, if the film has a weak link, it is in the story. Much of this undoubtedly stems from adapting a lengthy novel to the screen. Trimming of the material by necessity makes some of the characters’ decisions difficult to fully understand. Or perhaps Doctor Zhivago is the kind of story where those things just happen, not because they make sense, but because they represent something else altogether. It is difficult for me to parse the difference, without having read the novel, but that’s just how abrupt some of the events of the film are depicted. However, the acting from Omar Sharif and Julie Christie makes up for much of it. Both are able to convey their characters’ emotional state with and without dialogue, making the each melodramatic moment feel convincing, even if the context is weak. Sharif in particular does a masterful job, as Yuri Zhivago would be hardly likable without Sharif creating a deep sense of empathy within the audience.

The most compelling character in the film, however, is the ruthless Victor Komarovsky. Rod Steiger steals every scene he is in, and well represents the kind of callousness that can lead a politician to success whether under the czar or the Reds. He is a despicable person, and the way the film employs him as Zhivago’s foil works mostly due to Steiger’s energetic performance. Equally captivating is Tom Courtenay has “Pasha,” the quiet reformer who ends up haunting the second half of the film. His reservedness is almost cold, and embodying the ideal cause crusader he is clearly torn between the cause and Lara.

I would definitely recommend seeing director David Lean’s films on the biggest screen possible, and keep an eye for future events at BMFI!

Author: Ryan Silberstein

Ryan has been writing thoughtful film reviews and pop culture commentary on and off for over a decade. He spends his days at a company named one of the best to work for in the Philadelphia area. His other interests include comic books, coffee, experimental beer, discovering new music, and books.

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