Thursday 27 June 2013

1,001 Films: "Doctor Zhivago" (1965)

In a peculiar way, Doctor Zhivago may be David Lean's response, as a member of the movie old guard, to the turmoil playing out on the streets as the Sixties started to grip: if not quite his La Chinoise, then certainly a film that looked east as a way of getting a fix on a newly chaotic, indeed insurrectionary, world. If that's right, then Zhivago adopts a perverse tactic: recruiting graduates of an emergent left-leaning cinema (Julie Christie, Tom Courtenay, Rita Tushingham), sticking them all with several inches of black woollens under six feet of spray-on snow, and then removing them all to pre-revolutionary Russia (or an idea thereof, drawn by Robert Bolt from Boris Pasternak's novel) where they threaten to be lost amid a million and one extras.

Lean is less interested in realpolitik than romance, so he conspires to make Courtenay's revolutionary intellectual a marginal figure (obliged to wear Nazi-er specs the more hardline he gets) and spins the whole thing around a girl: 17-year-old beauty Lara (Julie Christie, stronger on the beauty than the 17-year-old part), as she sets the hearts of the upper-classes - and Omar Sharif's upwardly mobile doctor-slash-poet (sublime words, but you can't read the handwriting) - to fluttering; the sole suspense concerns who's going to win her hand, and whether or not they'll be able to do it before being dragged off by the Bolsheviks.

Beyond that, the film is a demonstration of those virtues the British film industry has clung to over the past half-century, in the absence of passion or imagination: spotless craft and brisk professionalism. We're meant to admire how pretty these pieces are, and how efficiently Bolt and Lean have them moved around the board, no matter that they're being used to no ends greater than saying "booo!" to isms and hurrah to young lovers. And it is possible to admire Doctor Zhivago, up to a point: swallow the opening hour's lumpy porridge, and it equally sucks you in, mostly due to Sharif's very skilful playing of a kind-of ideal: the kindly cheater, a.k.a. the man whose heart is just too big for just one woman.

Christie, too, is compellingly lovely, but you just know her L'Oreal look wouldn't survive one harsh Russian winter, let alone the three or four the film eventually drags on for. Still, it's stiff, out-of-time and pre-revolutionary in a sexual sense, too, judging by the way Sharif's two women are defined chiefly by their ability to perform household tasks: Julie's an angel over the ironing board, while Geraldine Chaplin (as the doc's first wife) allows a stove to go out on her young son, and is never quite forgiven for it. If you did find yourself with three-and-a-bit hours to spare - and I know you're busy these days - it's been superceded by Beatty's Reds, which gives you the romance, but also makes something truly exhilarating out of the politics, national, international and domestic.

Doctor Zhivago is available on DVD through Warner Home Video.

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