In a world oversaturated by CGI fests disguising themselves as “epics”, the Broadway theatre in Nottingham attempts to bring us a classic epic from another time in honor of its 50th anniversary: Doctor Zhivago. David Lean, renowned for his visually striking directing, continues to deliver as he delves into a grand-scale romantic story spanning decades in Russian history.
The story centers on Yuri Andreivich Zhivago (Omar Sharif), a doctor by profession but a poet at heart, and his adulterous relationship with Larissa (“Lara”) Antipova (Julie Christie), wife of the idealistic reformate (and later Red Army General) Pavel Pavlovich (“Pasha”) Antipov (Tom Courtenay). The lives of the two lovers seem to be intertwined throughout decades, in the backdrop of many tumultuous years in Russian History, which seem to complicate the lover’s capacity to stay together.
As already stated, this film excels visually. The photography (which mostly takes place in Spain, Portugal and Finland as the movie was unaccepted and soon banned by Russia) is truly impressive and the way Lean can manipulate colour and lighting to reinforce thematic points is incredibly noteworthy. For example, it is hard to find a romantic scene in the movie that is not set in a bleak, seemingly lifeless environment, yet nearly every battle scene in the movie is beautifully shot and striking in colour. The musical score that gives every battle moment a climactic feeling reinforces this clear juxtaposition in the film. Furthermore, the camerawork, which allows for wider and further away shots in battle scenes and large amount of extras to be employed, made the battles striking.
This brings us to another strong aspect of the film, the acting. Being this a long feature (a little over three hours), it would become snooze-worthy soon with weak performances. Luckily, this is not the case. Every main character is interpreted exceptionally. Alec Guiness dominates every scene he’s in despite a relatively small role in the film as Yuri’s brother, and narrator of the story. Yet his presence on screen is felt every second he appears. His character is a Bolshevik general and a quite pragmatic, if ultimately kind-hearted, one. However he is extremely analytical of everyone and Alec Guiness’ chilling demeanor captures this perfectly by.
Another performance that shone is that of Christie Lara in one of her first leading roles. Her emotional range characterized her character very well as an emotional yet ultimately enduring woman who always finds herself in rather miserable situations. Shafif also did a great job as Doctor Zhivago, representing a wide-eyed poet caught in countless difficult situations, though sadly he came off as a somewhat weaker character, despite being the central focus of the film. His adulterous, and sometimes blatantly disrespectful attitude in terms of avoiding his wife came off as unjustified, considering the naïve and honorable way he was being characterized.
Before plunging yourself into this movie, be warned that this is a period piece at its core, and a quite dense one at that. It is a movie that stagnates at points, especially around halfway and demands that you keep track of the backdrop in which the story is happening. If you are looking to turn off your brain and be entertained then this is probably not your best option. Personally, I thought the first act of the movie was the strongest, most compelling part of the film due to it being quite compact in comparison to the rest of the film which lulled and came risk fully close to dull at points. However the striking photography and compelling drama prevents it from becoming boring.
The plot is interesting enough to keep you compelled and delves with interesting themes, but the large span of time which the story envelops forces some essential parts of the relationship between Zhivago and Lara to be cut out, something which will become well apparent if you chose to watch the film. This detracted a lot from the effectiveness of romantic moments that seemed much less passionate when much of the relationship between the two lovers was never explored. This is a trade-off however, in the attempt to raise the film to epic standards and make it envelope decades, some of the moments we might have wanted to see were deemed as irrelevant by Lean.
“The photography … is truly impressive and the way Lean can manipulate colour and lighting to reinforce thematic points is incredibly noteworthy”
In the end, Zhivago is worth seeing, if only to be reminded that even without CGI, animatronics, or any modern technique, something can emerge that is so grand in scope and so well orchestrated and put together, that it can garner the title of epic.
Lean’s Doctor Zhivago is an exercise in epic filmmaking, which excels both visually and performance-wise, unfortunately at the expense of bad pacing and restricted plot.
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