Monday, July 11, 2016

Short Take: Doctor Zhivago (1965)

Director David Lean is legendary for his attention to detail. His films often seem more realized than one might think possible. In Doctor Zhivago, he in many ways went further than he ever had before. The sets and costuming have never been more extravagantly painstaking. The shot compositions and staging have a strikingly elaborate pictorial elegance. In terms of production values and visual craftsmanship, the film is astonishing. And the drama is completely overwhelmed by the grandeur of the trappings. No movie has ever seemed so spectacular and yet so banal. One spends more than three hours watching the title character (the Keane-eyed Omar Sharif), and his experiences before, during, and after the Russian Revolution. One will be wondering what the point is long before the film ends. The center of the story is his love for the beautiful Lara (Julie Christie), but the picture is a third over before they have a scene together, and almost halfway through before they have a conversation. Their passion appears based on an infatuation borne of the time when war separated them from their spouses. But there is no feeling of rapport between the two, and no erotic tension before they begin their affair. The picture can't even find drama in adultery. Part of what goes wrong is Robert Bolt's script, which he adapted from the novel by Boris Pasternak. Bolt hasn't shaped the material into any discernible structure, and the story never seems to get started. Lean compounds the problems by not designing the scenes in terms of dramatic effect. Every moment is just a platform for the august visuals. It's a cinematic coffee-table book. Most of the cast--Sharif, Christie, Tom Courtenay (as Lara's husband), Geraldine Chaplin (who plays Zhivago's wife), and Alec Guinness (who plays his brother)--gets turned into mannequins. Rod Steiger brings some shading and tension to his role as the teenage Lara's middle-aged lover, but the performance is smothered by the production's bloat. The picture's most irritating element is Maurice Jarre's famous balalaika score. It would be fine if used with restraint, but Lean plays it incessantly. The Oscar-winning cinematography is by Freddie Francis, and the production design (which also won an Oscar) is by John Box, Terence Marsh, and Dario Simoni. A TV mini-series version, starring Hans Matheson and Keira Knightley, was released in 2002.

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