Doctor Zhivago (1965)

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*. The novel had been a political cause célèbre, and won the Nobel Prize for literature. The film went on to do blockbuster box office (as of 2010 it ranked as the eighth-highest grossing film of all time, adjusted for inflation) and was nominated for ten Academy Awards (winning for cinematography, screenplay, art direction, score, and costumes). Even the music (the hideous, tingling “Lara’s Theme”) topped the charts. And yet today I think Doctor Zhivago is mainly looked upon as a tedious monstrosity, if not a joke.
*. Well, it has been fifty years. That’s a very long time. But it’s worth noting that even on its release it was met with generally negative reviews that complained of its soap-opera sensibility and curiously ineffective use of a whale of a budget.
*. Overture? Intermezzo? Entr-acte? What year is this?
*. It had to come to this: the sort of movie that makes you think David Lean should have just become a second unit director for the latter half of his career. Did he ever see a train he didn’t want to shoot? And what’s with all the people gazing out of windows? I think this reflects Lean’s own touristy, sightseeing sensibility. There’s nothing interesting happening inside, so let’s cut to another postcard.
*. 200 minutes. I passed on listening to the full DVD commentary. I couldn’t take another slog through Yuri and Lara’s not-so-brief encounter.
*. It’s amazing how Klaus Kinski manages to steal the show during his brief appearance. No matter how big the production, there’s one actor who was never stuffy!

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*. There’s no sense of real history happening, and no politics worth the mention. How could a movie like this be so bland, inoffensive, and non-controversial?
*. The novel (I am told) is quite freely adapted. Did Pasternak ever explain why they were bothering to lug that balalaika around? Was that Yuri’s Rosebud? It seems an inconvenience more than an item with any personal meaning. No one even plays it!
*. Pauline Kael: “It isn’t shoddy . . . it’s stately, respectable, and dead.” David Thomson: “it is beautiful, but worse than that, things are arranged in order to be beautiful.”
*. Do note, however, that Kael singles out the final shot of the rainbow as being particularly disgraceful, a point Thomson thinks so good he repeats it. The rainbow, however, is in the novel, so don’t hang that one on Hollywood.
*. Robert Bolt’s script is Masterpiece Melodrama, but given Lean’s completely insensitive direction I’m not sure it even makes a difference. There are two early moments, for example, that could have been effective: Guiness tearing the flower apart as he marches along, and the rebellious soldiers killing their officers. But neither scene registers any emotional force.

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*. Omar Sharif. He has no chemistry with either of his leading ladies. He has watery eyes and that’s it. But you can’t put all the blame for his performance on him. Lean told him to “do nothing” on screen: to not act or emote at all. He was simply to be the film’s “observer.” This in a love story!
*. Alec Guinness is ridiculous as a Soviet commissar. And Tom Courtenay only a little less so.

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*. I suppose the art direction is top drawer, but much of it looks fake. Because much of it was. The interior of the “ice palace” is probably the worst of it. Beeswax, apparently, with acres of white plastic stretched outside for snow. Was it really necessary to go through so much trouble and expense to create a pseudo-realistic effect? Why not just shoot someplace where there was a lot of real snow? Logistics, I suppose.
*. There’s not much more you can say about a three-hour Russian winter that isn’t even effective as a soap opera. And the film’s most glaring weaknesses – its pace and sentimentality – are also the qualities that have dated it the most. As bad as it is, I’m afaid it’s getting worse all the time.

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