If the term (or is that genre?) ‘epic’ required an accompanying picture to go with a definition you’d be hard pressed to find a more appropriate one than of David Lean’s face. From The Bridge Over the River Kwai onwards the British giant only seemed interested in the biggest films, generally succeeding at them, too.
His Russian based epic, Doctor Zhivago, is an adaptation of Boris Pasternak’s novel of the same name. It follows the life of doctor and poet, Yuri (Omar Sharif), and his blossoming romance with Lara (Julie Christie), set against the backdrop of some of the most significant events in Russia during the early 20th century. A Russia in which the actors all speak Queen’s English while reading books in Russian and even writing letters in Cyrillic, apparently.
Doctor Zhivago wears its grandeur on its sleeve. Off the back of the monumental Lawrence of Arabia, David Lean stuck with a winning formula and enlisted the help of Freddie Young for the film’s cinematography. The result is spectacular, especially the wide, panoramic shots of the Russian wilderness that make up a significant chunk of the film. And as a sucker for window shots, David Lean has inundated the film with some of the best I’ve ever seen.
Maurice Jarre’s wonderful, emotive score also befits a film of such scale and while often present during key moments, it never feels overbearing.
While Doctor Zhivago is undoubtedly a masterpiece of presentation, its plot doesn’t quite match up. Doctor Zhivago’s first hour, while necessary in moving the pieces around to give everything much needed context, is a bit of a punishing start. It finds its feet after that and the three-and-a-half hours end up flying by once it settles into a groove.
And for a film of such length, there is a noticeable lack of character development for many of the film’s main players. Even the love affair between Yuri and Lara feels a little unconvincing, slightly worrying considering it is the main thrust of the entire story. Yet somehow it remains oddly watchable.
While a little unwieldy and inconsistent, Doctor Zhivago is a film that is ultimately more than the sum of its composite parts. The story is perfectly functional (it may prove to be a grower as time goes by) and the visuals give birth to some truly wonderful images and moments that are at times up there with Lean’s best. (7)