Winning six Academy awards, Dr Zhivago takes place in the Russian Revolution following Yuri Zhivago (Omar Sharif), a young doctor who has been raised by his aunt and uncle after his father’s suicide. The young man falls in love with the beautiful Lara Guishar (Julie Christie), a woman who has been having an affair with her own mother’s lover, an unethical and opportunistic businessman named Victor Komarovsky (Rod Steiger). Yuri ends up getting married to his cousin, Tonya (Geraldine Chaplin), a loving and compassionate woman who did nothing but love her husband. But when Yuri and Lara meet again years later, after the war, they pick up where they left off.
Directed by David Lean (Brief Encounter), Dr Zhivago has to be one of the best love stories I have ever seen. Set against the backdrop of the Russian Revolution, it’s a pretty picture indeed. The stunning cinematography and landscapes meshed with a poignant historical setting and great characters, Dr Zhivago is one of the most moving films I have ever seen. Yuri Zhivago (Sharif) is by no means a perfect person. He’s not a pillar of morality, breaking his vows and cheating on his pregnant wife. However, he’s an unforgettable character and is one point of one of the most compelling love arcs ever with Omar Sharif leading the charge in another Lean masterpiece.
Based on the book of the same name by Boris Pasternak (which I haven’t read yet), Dr Zhivago is truly one of ‘The Epics’ of the time. Arriving in the same decade as Lawrence of Arabia (also directed by David Lean), Spartacus (Stanley Kubrick) and Cleopatra, directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz (All About Eve). And what I’ve been told of Pasternak’s original novel is, Dr Zhivago is a good adaptation, but typically, there have been some changes. However, in my opinion, from a film standpoint, it’s a masterpiece of epic proportions. Once the film gets going, it doesn’t stop and you know a film is good when two hundred minutes feels like one hundred and twenty minutes.
The film follows a handsome doctor and poet, Yuri Zhivago, and his experiences during the Russian Revolution. The tale is told in flashbacks by his half brother Yevgraf (Alec Guinness) in a retelling of Yuri’s adventures to a young woman (Rita Tushingham) who may be the long lost daughter of Yuri and Lara, and by extension, Yevgraf’s niece. Whether we’re talking about Ray Liotta narrating Scorsese’s Goodfellas as Henry Hill or Sheen’s voiceover in Oliver Stone’s Platoon or even narrations in films like Trainspotting, Annie Hall or Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, I’m a sucker for a good voiceover and Alec Guinness in Dr Zhivago in no different. It’s really something special.
Omar Sharif (Lawrence of Arabia) as Dr Zhivago is really well-acted, conveying all numbers of emotions throughout the two hundred-minute runtime. Yuri is a man of pure emotion, in tune with all his senses and has a deep respect for the beauty around him. I guess that comes with the unique combination of being both a man of science, and a man of the arts in his love of poetry. His kindness and humanity stand in stark contrast to the brutality of war and rebellion. He sees the world around him crumble from not just war, but the degradation of the souls of his fellow men. And he might be the only character in the story who stands by what he believes throughout.
As conflicts unfolds (Bolshevik Revolution and then the Civil War), the more pressing battle is in Yuri’s soul and he’s torn between duty and true love. He loves Tonya: delicate, dependable and family woman. Then he loves Lara: violent, sensual and a sensitive woman. He fails in his struggle to remain faithful and gives into temptation, tempted by the alluring Lara, a wartime army nurse who he meets during the war. She speaks to his spirit and is the subject for a lot of his poetry. Unlike most infidelity tropes, they both want personal integrity. They are both brought together, and separated, because of war and revolution. Yes, Yuri has sinned but he has suffered as well.
From the acting to the cinematography to the pacing and the memorable musical score, this is pure cinema. Is it my favourite David Lean picture? No, Brief Encounter still holds that spot but it’s still a cinematic achievement in its own right.