As part of their ‘Love’ season, I was lucky enough to get a preview of the BFI’s 4K remastered version of Dr. Zhivago. Released in 1965, starring Omar Sharif, Julie Christie and Alec Guinness, David Lean’s epic romance tells the tale of an aspiring young doctor (Sharif) during the Russian Revolution as his life becomes intertwined with the beautiful Lara (Christie). Though originally hit and miss with the critics, Dr. Zhivago was adored by the public, showcasing innovative cinematography to capture the stark cruelty of war-ravaged Russia, and a stand-out score that’s now viewed as the quintessential romance soundtrack.
We begin in Tsarist Russia, where seeds of civil unrest are beginning to grow and the people are crying out for a more equal society. Yuri Zhivago is finishing his medical studies and is engaged to the pretty and pleasant Tonya, a life-long friend. It is on an emergency call one night that he first lays eyes on Lara, a student and daughter of a local dress-maker. Her story is a tragic one, she starts so pure and innocent, only to be dragged into the mud when her mother’s lover forces himself onto her, whilst her own fiancée is deemed too troublesome as he attempts to catalyse the revolution. Following the fall of the Tsar, Russia is thrown into upheaval and, coupled with the losses of the First World War, many fall into poverty, including former aristocrats such as Zhivago. He and Lara cross paths several times, and the film begins to hinge on the struggle between their desire for one another, a ‘true’ love, and his life with Tonya, who has given him one child and is carrying another.
Zhivago is a good man, a doctor who only wishes no ill on anyone and just wants a quiet life in which he can help the sick and write poetry. The Revolution is harsh though, and not many can escape its grasp, no matter how far they travel into the desolate Russian tundra. Roaming bands of mercenaries from both sides are a threat, killing indiscriminately, giving rise to a sense of “you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t”. The love between Zhivago and Lara is the only silver-lining, it seems pure enough that you can cast aside any moral quandaries that might usually arise, and provides some light in an otherwise darkened landscape.
The film is long, at over three hours, and though it felt “epic”, I wasn’t waiting for it to finish; the running time allows for greater character development, so as an audience you can really get involved and feel invested in the story. Lean achieved something truly marvellous here, seeing it on the big screen is a must, and the 4K remastering is sure to capture a more modern audience who might previously have shied away from a 50 year old film. I feel blessed that my first time seeing Dr. Zhivago was on the big screen, it’s the complete package and I’ll certainly be first in line to see more of the same from the BFI, who keep showing time and time again that more often than not, the old ones are the best ones.
5 / 5
Dir: David Lean
Scr: Robert Bolt
Starring: Omar Sharif, Julie Christie, Rod Steiger, Tom Courtenay, Geraldine Chaplin, Alec Guinness
Prd: Carlo Ponti
DOP: Freddie Young
Music: Maurice Jarre
Run time: 193 mins
Doctor Zhivago is in cinemas again from 27 Nov 2015.