Review: Doctor Zhivago (1965)


Hey, Klaus Kinski is in the house and what do you know, he’s just as crazy in Russia as he is everywhere else!

Screenplay By: Robert Bolt
Directed By: David Lean

David Lean was a fan of epics, and Doctor Zhivago is another epic from the same man responsible for Lawrence Of Arabia. Unlike Lawrence Of Arabia where a universal story was being related, I would contend that Doctor Zhivago is strictly a Russian story with some themes that connect with other people, but it needs to be viewed from a Russian sensibility. This isn’t an easy thing to do, because the Russian attitude of rolling with the punches in the most extreme sense isn’t shared by most people. For most of us, myself included, we look at Yuri and his affair with Lara and view it as an excess on his part. But in his mind, it is something that is there and something he should take advantage of, that is the Russian way after all.

The above is only one in in a long line of very Russian events. Think of it like moral relativity, Western ideals don’t apply to 1900’s Russia. When viewing Doctor Zhivago that way the story becomes much more enjoyable, it still isn’t good but it’s enjoyable in an odd way. The reason I say the story isn’t good is because it is a fractured, confusing and far too soap inspired story. It is full of sop and romanticism in the place of reality, features far too many cases of overacting and never stays place in any area of the World War or the Bolshevik Revolution for either to matter to the film in any great detail. But, the draw of Doctor Zhivago isn’t in its story, and if you can get by the story you will be assaulted by tremendous visuals and great panoramas.

David Lean and Freddie Young are capable of tremendous visuals, and they have never done better than Doctor Zhivago. This may be my love of winter settings over the desert of Lawrence Of Arabia, but either way they are capable of capturing beautiful imagery on the camera. Whether it is the Czarist forces putting down a peaceful demonstration, the vibrant colors of a Christmas Eve party, the dregs of the Russian Army retreating from the trenches of WWI or a stunning train ride with an ice door they present a variety of visuals that are equally amazing to witness and provide tremendous scope to the film. But, nothing comes close to touching the moment when Yuri and Lara enter the Gromeko country estate and find a house besieged by the elements. Ice cascades all around them, snow permeates every inch of the front rooms and I couldn’t help but stare in absolute awe of the craftsmanship that went into creating such a masterful set design and then filming it so beautifully.

The bottom line with Doctor Zhivago is that it is a visual masterpiece, but lacking in every other area. Roger Ebert wrote that Doctor Zhivago comes down to whether or not a beautiful rendition of a real life vista on film draws you in. The set design and cinematography of Doctor Zhivago drew me in intensely and helped to offset the shallow nature of the story and the characters. It’s a bit long in the tooth and definitely isn’t for plot driven movie goers, but Doctor Zhivago is a joy to look at and sometimes there isn’t a thing wrong with immersing yourself in beautiful imagery.




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