David Lean once again excells with his cinematography and music choices for this adaptation of Boris Pasternak’s novel; and once again, I’m a bit lukewarm about the story itself.
The “Doctor Zhivago” of the title is Yuri Zhivago (Omar Sharif), born in the Ural Mountains but orphaned as a child and taken in by a Moscow family. He grows up to be a doctor, writing poetry in his spare time, and marries his adoptive sister Tonya (Geraldine Chaplin). Elsewhere in Moscow, a young woman named Lara (Julie Christie) catches the eye of her mother’s lover, Victor Komarosky (Rod Steiger), who date-rapes her one night after a ball. Her mother attempts suicide when she finds out, and Komarosky calls on his own doctor to discreetly handle the situation. Coincidentally, Zhivago is his assistant, and Lara catches his eye there as well. But Lara really catches his attention when she later turns up at a Christmas party and shoots Komarosky. Komarosky refuses to press charges, Zhivago patches him up, and someone finds Lara’s boyfriend Pasha (Tom Courtenay) and urges him to marry Lara and get her out of town.
But this isn’t just a soap-y plot – this is all happening just before the First World War, at a time when Bolshevik sentiment is also causing trouble within Russia itself. And soon both the War and the Bolshevik Revolution throw even bigger wrenches into our characters’ lives. Pasha enlists and goes missing in action; Zhivago is drafted into service as a field doctor. Lara volunteers as a nurse to try to find Pasha, and is assigned to work with Zhivago; and while sparks fly for them then, they behave themselves, each returning to their separate homes after the war. Only Zhivago’s palatial home has been taken over by the Soviet government and turned into a block of apartments, and the Soviets have been throwing shade at Zhivago’s poems. He soon sneaks out with his family to his father-in-law’s country home in the Urals – just outside the town where Lara coincidentally now lives. This time the pair finally become lovers – except just when Zhivago realizes he needs to decide between Tonya and Lara, he’s kidnapped by a band of Communist soldiers and press-ganged into their ranks for another two years. When he finally escapes and starts heading home, he has an interesting choice – which “home”? Tonya, or Lara?
When the film came out, several critics grumbled that the film markedly diminished the importance of the Russian Revolution and the resulting political fallout. I’m inclined to agree – Zhivago seems to be able to escape Moscow awfully easily, and we get little to no clarification of who the two warring parties are in the Bolshevik Revolution; we just know that there’s the “Red Soviets” and the “White Russians”, but other than that all we know is that they’re making Zhivago sad and complicating things with him and Lara. I was also frustrated by a character played by Alec Guinness; he claims in the film that he is Zhivago’s half-brother Yevgraf, and helps get them out of Moscow at one point, but…mostly he seems to be a convenient plot device and that’s it. I learned nothing about how he was Zhivago’s half-brother, which bothered me greatly for some reason. Pasternak’s book includes more of Zhivago’s thinking about the political foment, but the overwhelming focus of the film is on the Tragic Doomed Romance between Zhivago and Lara, and giving everything else short shrift got me lost a few times.
Fortunately there’s pretty stuff to look at – the grey of a mine shaft punctuated by a Soviet Red Star, Zhivago’s in-law’s abandoned mansion frozen over into a fairytale ice palace, a rare happy moment where Zhivago contentedly looks out at the country field surrounding the house where he and Tonya live to see it covered in newly-blooming daffodills. There’s also the occasional moment of unexpected comedy – early in the film, Yevgraf is talking to a young woman he suspects may be Yuri Zhivago’s daughter with Lara, who went missing as a child. But when he asks her what her mother’s name was, she says “Mummy”, and when he asks what she looked like, she says only, “She….was big?”
I think it really depends what you’re looking for when you go into this. If you’re looking for a complex analysis of a character struggling to find a place for himself and his family between a pair of warring political ideologies, you may not find that here; but if you’re looking for a swoony romantic epic, you’ve definitely got that.