Top Ten Fool's Gold: The Overrated Part 5 Doctor Zhivago
In this series I would like to provide my readers with a more critical perspective to consider, one that hopefully will not detract from a person's appreciation for the films under review. At the same time, I'd question whether these motion pictures really deserve the high accolades bestowed upon them by the critical community in general. Perhaps it's like this: Instead of "The emperor has no clothes," I'm saying "He's just not that well dressed." (For a further introduction on this subject please see: Top Ten Fool's Gold: The Overrated Part 1.)
These notices are meant for viewers familiar with the following motion pictures.
(They will be addressed in alphabetical order.)
Doctor Zhivago (1965, U.S.A. / Italy / U.K.)
Director: David Lean
Unlike David Lean's earlier romance film Brief Encounter, which ignored both its source material's pre, and at the time it was filmed, post World War II settings, Doctor Zhivago is entirely consumed with the surrounding multiple wartime events and the life-changing effects they inflict, not only on our couple in love, but a vast assortment of surrounding characters.
The film's ambitious scope encompasses the time period before, during, and after World War I, 1917's Russian Revolution, and the Russian Civil War. In addition, there's a framing device set sometime after WW II involving Lieutenant General Yevgraf Zhivago's (Alec Guinness) attempt to find and identify the daughter of his half-brother Doctor Yuri Zhivago (Omar Sharif) and his illicit lover Lara Antipova (Julie Christie). Yevgraf believes a young factory worker Tanya, may be his niece. As he narrates his brother's life to her, we see in flashback the detailed events of a man's long history, his country and its people's tragic upheavals.
As previously stated, there are many individuals who will intersect the good doctor's life that the filmmakers attempt to cover and make convincing. These include Yuri Zhivago's adoptive parents Alexander and Anna Gromeko, and their daughter Tonya who Yuri will grow up with and eventually marry. Then there is Lara Antipova, involved in an affair with her mother's lover, the well-connected businessman Victor Komarovsky. At the same time, Lara is soon to be engaged to an idealistic reformer Pavel ("Pasha") Antipov whom she will later wed.
Robert Bolt, adapting Boris Pasternak's 600+ page novel, has done an admirable job in providing fairly intelligent, complex characterisations for a well chosen international cast to perform. Perhaps for the more discerning viewer, too admirable. There are so many intricate events and people to juxtapose and consider, something's gotta give. The casualties include the titular character who is the subject of, at least throughout the first half of the story, such divided attention, he becomes underdeveloped. He's a poet and a doctor, someone who believes in the rights of the common man, the proletariat, but is mostly rendered throughout the film as a silent sufferer. Yuri's most identifiable trait is apparently due to how those governmental rights are implemented and his love for the almost, but not quite, unattainable Lara. The romance, in the way of romantic feelings that would exist at his story's centre, is narrowly expressed to Lara until just before the film's intermission (Yuri's assistant at the time) and even then wordlessly so. In the second half of the story, when Yuri and Lara finally give in to their previously repressed desires, Yuri still seems little more than forlorn, lost in contemplation, tears in his eyes, staring out of windows, et al. The big romance we've been waiting for is a bit of a letdown. One's thoughts can easily drift to their union's repercussions on their respective spouses or the social and political ramifications, given the sizeable amount of time spent on those subjects.
Many of the tumultuous events that affect the earlier aforementioned cast are dramatically apparent, but on closer inspection, isolated, and even then, hard to authenticate. It's as if the filmmakers have confused and replaced subtlety with ambiguity. Examples include Pasha's (Tom Courtenay) complete turnaround from a pacifist Menshevik (the minority faction of the Marxist Labor party) to a Bolshevik leader (the majority party who believe in change by force). On paper, the violent attack on his former group's peaceful demonstration provides sufficient reason for his change of heart, but he's instantly and forevermore transformed into a completely different and opposite type of person. It's impossible to fully embrace this important character especially when, after the attack, he so dispassionately states his newly found intentions to an inquisitive Lara. Afterward, like so many other characters made relevant, Pasha will go missing for a substantial period of time. Lara's comprehensiveness becomes inadequate as well when she shoots her mother's lover Victor (Rod Steiger) after he initiates a sexual assault against Lara, even though she has been his willing mistress previously. After the shooting, in which Victor is only superficially wounded, Lara retreats with nary a word about it, making her original intentions extremely ambivalent. Victor himself is an anomaly given the attention spread elsewhere. There just isn't enough connective tissue to adequately identify the cause of his wildly split personalities: a devoted, considerate and thoughtful man in some scenes, and in others like a wild sadistic beast. Because of his absence throughout the story, Victor's unpredictable and contradictory behaviour will later, like Pasha in his way, be exacerbated to the point of incomprehensibility. Yuri's half-brother Yevgraf seems often emotionally detached noticeably concerning his lost niece especially in the beginning and ending scenes. There's a lack of urgency in these framing segments, a deficit that often dramatically undermines other pivotal developments. Characters deliver their thoughts and intentions but a crucial degree of impetus seems missing. The unseen occurrences that Yevgraf narrates (poor factory worker Tanya must be asleep by now) appear to be born out of necessity for the viewer's understanding rather than a significant part of changing consequence. There is also a central disconnect between the adulterous affair and the historical events depicted. The growing love Yuri and Lara feel for one another is universally recognised; as much as the surrounding political incidents influence their individual lives, they are basically unrelated to this shared emotion and decision whether to consummate their relationship. Finally, Yuri's last moments on a tram come across as dramatically embellished, a contrivance, more cliche than tragedy.
Director Lean has secured excellent performances from everyone involved and Norman Savage's editing has kept the overall narrative realistic and fairly coherent. Adding to the film's accomplishments are John Box's impressively lavish production design, Freddie Young's bold and beautiful cinematography and Maurice Jarre's appropriately flavourful and binding musical accompaniment. In the end, however, the film's expansive chronicle of revolution, turmoil, personal desires, romantic fulfilment and tragic outcomes, manifest in an increasingly dispersed, disjointed and therefore less compelling film watching experience as a whole. Perhaps if Robert Bolt and David Lean had approached Boris Pasternak's novel as inspiration, focused on either the history or romantic elements, relegating the rest to background instead of attempting to delineate both in such a faithful literary adaptation, the film's resonance factor would have been substantially improved.
Doctor Zhivago can best be appreciated on Blu-ray and purchased here:
It is also available on DVD here:
The film's soundtrack can be purchased here:
Next time: Another romantic tale of adulterous intrigue, Top Ten Fool's Gold #6: The English Patient.