1001 Movies: Doctor Zhivago

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Doctor Zhivago is my third David Lean film, after Lawrence of Arabia and The Bridge on the River Kwai, and my second favorite. It’s a characteristically visually stunning epic with a grand story and score. There are many beautiful shots, of the actors and landscape, and looking through windows. I’d love to read scholarship on the film’s cinematography.

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The film won five Academy Awards in 1966, including Best Picture, and it’s easy to see why. The script is subtle and, at nearly three and a half hours, still never plodding. Here’s the best summary from imdb:

A Russian epic, the movie traces the life of surgeon-poet Yury Zhivago before and during the Russian Revolution. Married to an upper-class girl who is devoted to him, yet in love with an unfortunate woman who becomes his muse, Zhivago is torn between fidelity and passion. Sympathetic with the revolution but shaken by the wars and purges, he struggles to retain his individualism as a humanist amid the spirit of collectivism.

I like Russian literature and what I’ve seen of Russian cinema, and the period this western film covers is no doubt one of the country’s most fascinating and tumultuous. Doctor Zhivago offers a view of that history refracted through the characters’ personal experiences. There are characters on each side of the conflicts and multiple ideologies represented, but neither the doctor nor Lara are particularly political (we’re told Lara supports the anti-Bolsheviks but never see it). The movie is not a polemic.

The acting is fine (I’m always excited for some Alec Guinness), but my one major criticism of the film is that I don’t buy the love story between Yuri and Lara. It’s clear Yuri is interested in Lara from first sight, but we don’t know why. They fall in love while serving as a doctor and nurse, respectively, during World War I, but we’re only told they have through their parting dialogue after a gap in time. I also always find it difficult to continue to sympathize with characters who are cheating on spouses who themselves are sympathetic (though Lara’s husband is a non-issue for reasons I won’t spoil). We see Yuri struggle with this, but I couldn’t care. However, the story doesn’t dwell on his angst, and it’s not long before Yuri is swept up in the Revolution, against his will.

I’ll end with an image from Varykino, the estate in the country boarded up by the Reds where Yuri, Lara, and Lara’s daughter find temporary sanctuary (and conceive a child together). It’s mostly frozen over, a gorgeous but haunting image. It’s also frozen in time, and it’s here that Yuri writes his book of poems inspired by and dedicated to Lara.

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1001 Movies: Doctor Zhivago

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