Reviews of Classic Movies: 'Doctor Zhivago'

Now here is a love story. Looking at modern romantic comedies, where the male and female lead are always separated by some silly contrivance and are inevitably brought back together, it’s clear that David Lean knew what he was doing with Doctor Zhivago. Very rarely do you get a movie that goes to such lengths for a simple love story. If only they still made ‘em like this.

Set against the fall of Tsarist Russia and the rise of the Soviet state, Doctor Zhivago follows Yuri Andreyevich Zhivago (Omar Sharif) a young doctor who falls in love with a seamstress’ daughter, Lara Antipova (Julie Christie). Like all Russians, Yuri and Lara are caught up in the tumult of the First World War and subsequent Russian revolution. This causes Yuri and Lara to be constantly reunited and separated over a period of many years, despite their efforts to avoid the political turmoil and bloodshed.

Spinning around the central story of Yuri and Lara is a huge collection of sub-plots and supporting characters, making Doctor Zhivago feel like a twentieth century Shakespearean tragedy. The narrative was adapted from the novel by Boris Pasternak, and shot by filmmaking legend David Lean (The Bridge on the River Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia).

Lean’s touch is palpable in every scene, from the amazing wide shots of Eastern European and Russian landscapes to the fascinating long takes of actors' faces. One of the most famous of these latter shots is when Lean holds the camera on Omar Sharif as Yuri watches the Cossack guards cut down a group of protesters in the streets of Moscow. Sharif’s expression, coupled with Lean’s confidence in allowing the audience to imagine what Yuri is seeing, makes for a powerful piece of cinema.

David Lean's hand can be especially felt in the beautiful landscape shots

I just mentioned the empathy in Omar Sharif’s performance, and the other cast members don’t slouch in their duties, either. Through Julie Christie, we come to respect Lara’s impressive ability to endure whatever life throws at her. American actor Rod Steiger simply inhabits the slimy bourgeois character Victor Komarovsky. And then there’s Alec Guinness, who's magnetic as Yuri’s shadowy half-brother Yevgraf. Between Lean and his cast, there’s enough filmmaking talent on display for three movies put together.

Some critics back in 1965 took issue with Doctor Zhivago because the love story between Yuri and Lara seems to make apologies for Yuri’s infidelity – Yuri is, after all, married to childhood friend Tonya Gremenko (Geraldine Chaplin) for much of the film. It’s not that the film’s critics were simply a product of their times, but that they didn’t see what Boris Pasternak and David Lean saw in Yuri and Lara’s romance.

We’re meant to dislike Yuri for what he does to Tonya, and realize that if it weren’t for the seemingly cosmic forces keeping Yuri and Lara apart, Yuri would have married Lara instead of Tonya. As it is, Yuri manages to protect Tonya and their family for as long as he can, despite terrible odds, and this helps preserve Yuri’s honour. Once you realize this, you can be fully absorbed by the operatic scope of the film.

“Opera” might be a good way to describe the film’s score, as well. Composed by frequent Lean collaborator Maurice Jarre, the score of Doctor Zhivago will likely get stuck in your head for days after you watch it, especially Lara’s Theme. The music complements the visuals of the film so well, I half expected it to evolve into a musical at times. If Lean’s camera or the acting doesn’t draw you in, the music will. (Click here to listen to Lara’s Theme on YouTube.)

Since I’m writing this review with the hope that some of you go and check out Doctor Zhivago for the first time, it’s my duty to let you know about its length. Doctor Zhivago is a commitment – at 200 minutes (3h 20m), the film is seen as a marathon by some people. I’ve never been one to shy away from long movies, but trust me when I say that it’s worth it. Not only is it an entertaining and artful movie, I’m convinced that it’s one of those essential parts of a good film “education”.

The seamless blend of acting, camera and music in Doctor Zhivago leads me to think that there are few faults to be found in the movie. While I don’t doubt that there are parts that don’t work, in a way, I don’t want to be able to notice them. It’s for that reason that David Lean’s Doctor Zhivago gets four stars out of four.

Have you seen Doctor Zhivago? If so, what did you think? Is it a movie you’d return to, or is one viewing enough? If you haven’t seen it, did my review make it sound like something to check out? Post your thoughts in the comments section down below, and browse through the rest of my Reviews of Classic Movies series:


Spellbound (1945) | The Graduate (1967)Rope (1948) | 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)