Sprawling across the Russian landscape, this epic film follows Yuri, a doctor and poet, and Lara, a young woman with a scandalous past. As the turmoil which gripped Russia before and after WW1 tears Yuri and Lara apart, they continue to serendipitously cross paths over and over, harboring a secret love for each other.
Some movies are like Everest. You watch them because they are there. “Doctor Zhivago” is a daunting film at over 3 hours but the run time is the least of its obstacles. It is a fairly slow story and to a westerner who knows little of Russian history, the movements which are occurring in Russia through out the film are barely if at all understood unless a character explains them, which seldom happens.
On top of it all, there is something about the acting style that simply didn’t connect with me. There was reservedness in most of the characters which may be true to the characters from the novel, I don’t know, but it certainly made it hard to empathize with their feelings.
Luckily there is plenty to enjoy along the journey with “Doctor Zhivago.” The scenery is beautiful and hard. The Russian countryside is almost a character in the film symbolizing the world slipping into a cold unfeeling brutality and slowly but surely, thawing.
The sets and especially the large city street of Moscow that was constructed are beautifully detailed, providing the backdrop for the power struggles between the Czarists and Bolsheviks.
Yet, much of this film felt empty to me. Maybe it just isn’t a film for me in the way that “Lawrence of Arabia,” (another classic David Lean film) was.
By comparison LoA (Lawrence of Arabia) is a about a man who seems to talk about his inner life, his thoughts and feelings, all the time. DZ (Doctor Zhivago) on the other hand is a bout two people who rarely speak their feelings. Yuri seems to be more of a watcher than a shaper of history.
Secondly, LoA is set in an exotic desert location which seems infinitely beautiful and alien to me. DZ, while set in Russia, many times feels not so foreign to a guy from the midwest who knows what it is to get snowed on hard.
Additionally, even though both films are about huge political, military, and social ideas and changes, LoA goes out of its way to explain everything going on so as not to lose its audience. DZ has no such concern for its audience. Just as the people depicted in it are swept away by forces they do not understand, the audience is left floundering for any scrap of information to keep them afloat.
Finally, LoA digs deep into a single character’s psyche. As a result it is constantly turning up new levels of depth within that character and by proxy, ourselves. DZ is about a tragic romance that barely gets to live at all. If those windswept romances such as "Gone with the Wind" are your thing, this may be more your cup of tea than mine.
I really wanted to love this movie and place it alongside Lawrence of Arabia as another David Lean home run. Unfortunately, I doubt I will ever watch this one again. In the end, I find myself asking why I would ever watch this movie when I could watch so many other long epic films that engaged me more and never made me want to take a break.
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