Doctor Zhivago might be a famous David Lean film that's been out there since before I was born (1965) and features actors who won their fame through it (Omar Sharif), yet I still never got to watch it till this past weekend. I guess I should thank the new musical namesake and the promotional campaign it triggered for the film being aired.
The story starts with an Alec Guinness playing a Soviet Union army general in search of his brother's missing daughter. He finds this good looking girl who seems to have intellectual potential if the right opportunity might have been provided, and he tells her the story of her suspected parents in flashback mode. That story takes us back to pre-revolution Russia where we meet Yuri Zhivago (Sharif): a young poet just graduating from his studies to become a doctor. We also meet Lara (Julie Christie), who lives in the same area of Moscow and occasionally even bumps into Yuri without them realizing so. Then the 1917 Russian revolution starts and everything turns around; as far as our heroes are concerned, things generally turn bad. Those bad circumstances mean that Yuri and Lara get to know one another and love one another too, but their relationship is doomed: Yuri has the wife he knew long before, and Lara has her own revolutionary husband. What follows is a lengthy epic tale of their impossible love affair's ups and downs.
In order to be able to tell a story of epic proportions Doctor Zhivago needs to go to great lengths, and indeed this is a film of around three hours in duration (the Lean standard?). It suffers as a result: I found the first half of the film rather too tedious; things just take too long to develop. Eventually, though, things get in rhythm and the film grows on you: you become involved, you care for the characters, and the epic proportions of the film become a benefit.
It is pretty obvious what this epic is about. The story of the lost child, the story of the forbidden lovers with their ups and downs as reflected through the Russian revolution, the stories of starting from scratch only to be uprooted later, these are all different reflections of the story of Russia itself. In particular the story of a Russia starting a revival into a time where poetry, as in Yuri's, is once again popular and even endorsed by the authorities. In many respects, Doctor Zhivago is thus similar to Naguib Mahfouz' Miramar, a book that tries to do the same for the story of Egypt.
Best scene: After running a military hospital for months with Yuri the only doctor and Lara the chief nurse during the Great War, and while the two avoid anything that Yuri would have trouble telling his wife, the couple breaks off into their separate ways pretending there is nothing special between them. Having been in similar situations where necessity dictates almost pretend alienation myself I couldn't avoid identifying with the heroes. I also couldn't avoid appreciating the acting talents on display, especially Christie's.
Technical assessment: We recorded this film off the air from Gem (Channel 9's high definition channel). It occupied around 20gb on our hard drive recorder, yet the picture was awful and exhibited many scenes where heavy pixelization was way too visible. I can only wonder whether the fault was with Channel 9 or whether we are unable to look after our film treasures before they fall into pieces.
Overall: After a bit of a tough start I couldn't resist this epic, so I'm giving it 3.5 out of 5 stars. The experience reminded me of a book I recently read, The Windup Girl, which I didn't like too much but which also sports a very detailed epic tale: I resented having to go through all the details as I read the book, but in retrospect those details became so well etched in my head their memory eclipses most of the books I've better enjoyed reading.