The Beauty of Zhivago is not Just Julie Christie
For those who like to think of cinema as an art form then David Lean's "Doctor Zhivago" should be a crowd pleaser, a piece which should be looked upon, sucked in and discussed till the light fades. From the snow covered landscapes, the camera angles and use of light and shade it is a breathtakingly beautiful movie. But for those who look at cinema for entertainment may find "Doctor Zhivago" overly long, overly contrived and at times a bit self indulgent as one glorious scenic shot follows another with little narrative filling in between. There is no denying that the storyline to "Doctor Zhivago" as it covers a period of Russian history entwined with a love story is glorious but far too often it seems to take second place behind the great visuals which Lean delivers through out. As such for me "Doctor Zhivago" is a good movie one which visually is joy to watch but then is at times made painful by the lumbering storyline.
Having been orphaned as a young child Yuri Zhivago (Omar Sharif - Mackenna's Gold ) is raised by the family of Alexander Gromeko (Ralph Richardson - The Four Feathers) who have a daughter Tonya (Geraldine Chaplin - A Christmas Carol). Having grown up and become a doctor Yuri ends up marrying Tonya but goes off to serve as a doctor to soldiers on the front line as war rages on. It is whilst serving as a doctor on the front line he gets to know Lara (Julie Christie - Darling), a nurse who he had met once before many years earlier. Lara has her issues having had an affair with the evil Komarovsky (Rod Steiger) who was also sleeping with her mother but ends up feeling something for Yuri. Despite parting company it seems that Yuri and Lara's paths are destined to meet as he is forced to leave Moscow when his poetry causes controversy and heads to the Urals with Tonya and his family.
"Doctor Zhivago" is based upon Boris Pasternak's 1956 novel, a semi autobiographical tale of a Russian Poet who finds himself stuck in the midst of two Russian Revolutions and at the same time caught between two women who he loves in different ways. Rather than being a movie of two halves "Doctor Zhivago" embraces both of these elements telling the story of Yuri as he goes through life, caught in the midst of all the trouble, his service as a Doctor regarded in high esteem whilst also loving these two women, one he marries whilst one he seems to love even more deeply. It is an epic tale covering many years from Yuri being orphaned through to old age, his body weak after many years working as a Doctor on the front line whilst also at times trying to escape capture for his banned poetry. All of which is told in a semi flashback style as we meet Yuri's half brother who is looking for the daughter of the beautiful Lara, the woman which Yuri deeply loved.
Now it has to be said that this story of Russian Revolution is impressive and for me personally I liked this tale of love as we watch Yuri marry one woman whilst also loving another. But in a movie which comes in at 197 minutes it is a bum numbing experience as Lean seems to delight in capturing beautiful vistas rather than moving the story on at a more reasonable pace. And that is what spoils "Doctor Zhivago", what stops it for me from being great and that is it becomes a lumbering beast of a tale which whilst rich in narrative seems to take second place behind the artistic vision which Lean wanted to deliver.
Although it frustrates me that whilst "Doctor Zhivago" has a great storyline it takes second place to the look of the movie there is no denying that David Lean created a movie so visually beautiful that few have come close to it for being visually impressive. Just the scenes of the snow covered vistas, or the iced up buildings is enough to take your breath away time and again. But there is more and there are masterful uses of natural light, shadow which leaves an actors eyes just showing and so on and so forth which makes it a stunning movie. On top of this there are lavish sets, brilliant costumes and the magnificent "Lara's theme" which crops up time and again yet never becomes monotonous. Yes it has to be said that "Doctor Zhivago" is beautiful to watch even if it does suffer from being drawn out.
As for the acting, well "Doctor Zhivago" has a big cast with many big names such as Alec Guinness, Tom Courtenay, Rod Steiger and Geraldine Chaplin but it very much belongs to Omar Sharif as Uri Zhivago and Julie Christie as Lara. Both Sharif and Christie put in strong performances and whilst the nature of their characters, basically a love rat and the other woman, shouldn't lead us to like them we do and champion their very much forbidden relationship as they are drawn to each other time and again. Unfortunately both Sharif and Christie's performances suffer because of Lean's eye for a great looking shot and so moments of emotional high; a great delivery of dialogue is softened by a lingering shot which seems to be less interested in the emotion which the star is trying to deliver than the beautiful scenery.
What this all boils down to is that "Doctor Zhivago" is a very good movie, easily above average and if you want to watch something beautiful then it delivers time after time with great scenes of glorious landscapes and stunning sets. But it all feels so drawn out and at times dull as David Lean seems so focussed on delivering beauty rather than a story which moves at a more natural pace. It is because of this, it is because at 197 minutes it feels over long that "Doctor Zhivago" doesn't end up an exceptional movie rather than one which should be but is spoilt by Lean's eye for a great shot.