DOCTOR ZHIVAGO always seemed boring on TV when I was a kid, and once it had started it never seemed to stop. But that’s because (a) it was pan-and-scanned into visual incoherence, losing the very qualities which redeem it and (b) it really is nearly three hours long. And never dull, actually, if you see it in the right shape. But not too involving, either, though my friend Morag is always terribly moved by the hero’s death scene. Watched it with Marvelous Mary, Nicola, Donald and Stuart, and we were all dry-eyed yet impressed.
Stuart and I won a prize for a short film we made in 1990, and ZHIVAGO’s esteemed cinematographer, Freddie Young presented it. Stuart even had a brief conversation with the great man in the BAFTA men’s room, but alas can no longer recall the gist of it. He thinks it may have been a general reflection on the quality of the BAFTA men’s room.
Whatever his merits as a conversationalist, Young was an outstanding cameraman and, after Nic Roeg was fired by a nervous David Lean (he had previously kicked Robert Krasker off GREAT EXPECTATIONS), he excelled himself here, aided by John Box’s meticulous and lavish reconstruction of Russia in Spain. Still, I think this is the beginning of Lean’s true decline — I find no fault with LAWRENCE, but I think Lean should probably have stopped working with Robert Bolt and Maurice Jarre immediately afterwards. Still, Jarre contributes that main theme, and Bolt does a decent job of shrinking down an unwieldy novel. What he can’t do is find a consistent and believable idiom for his characters to speak in (“The war’s over, daddy!” is the line that always forces an embarrassed guffaw from my lungs). He’s not helped by Lean’s wild casting, which asks us to accept Alec Guinness and Omar Sharif as half-brothers, and Rita Tushingham as the offspring of Sharif and Julie Christie. The styles of performance are also madly varied, with the Actors’ Studio jostling with the Rank Charm School, Royal Shakespeare Company with kitchen sink realists. Theoretically, this could all still gel, but it definitely doesn’t.
Everything Lean does well in this film, he also does badly. Spielberg rhapsodizes over the musical edits, such as when a doctor tosses aside a slide, and the “ting!” it makes chimes with the bell of a tram in the next scene, but Lean also cuts from Rod Steiger pawing Julie Christie in a landau, to a dragoon captain shouting “Mount!” as a backside settles into a saddle. He jump-cuts with the aid of a zip-pan in the restaurant, as if he were directing The Man from UNCLE. Increasingly nervous about the thrilling experiments with film form going on in Europe, Lean would sway back and forth between unfelt, unwise attempts at experimentation, and ever-grander, more solemn and self-serious epic filmmaking. The latter style suits him better and he’s genuinely, uniquely good at it. It’s not to everyone’s taste, I know, but Lean had a feel for it.
Kind of a flat composition, which is not an obvious choice if you’re aiming for epic scope. But the cross in the foreground gives it a huge and dramatic sense of depth. The funeral of Zhivago’s mother freaked me out as a kid — Lean fades up the sound of weeping women as the coffin lid is nailed shut, giving the scene the aspect of a premature burial. The shot of Mrs. Z. lying in her coffin, buried, seemingly the imaginative vision of her young son, is gorgeous and very scary.
I think Steiger’s quite good in this. He excels at being loathsome. It helps that his character’s right about nearly everything.
I’m pretty sure Lean is making a point about the objectification of women here. At any rate, Julie Christie’s dress is one of Fiona’s two favourite movie costumes, the other being Fenella Fielding’s velvet vamp outfit in CARRY ON SCREAMING.
I do think it’s a problem when Klaus Kinski shows up, his brow a throbbing tracery (SCANNERS could have saved a fortune in effects by hiring him) — firstly, we have another accent to add to the already strange mix (though the IMDb claims the inescapable Robert Rietty revoiced the mellifluous Klaus), but also he’s so damned INTERESTING. I wanted the film to abandon poor Omar and Geraldine and just follow Klaus on his wacky adventures. Maybe he could get a dog and solve mysteries, or maybe he could set up business as a fake medium and fleece silly widows. Anything, really.
Other people who are good in this ~
Omar, even though he’s playing an almost entirely passive character, mainly defined by things he doesn’t do — doesn’t become a GP, doesn’t become a teacher, doesn’t leave his wife, doesn’t get on a landau with Julie and Rod…
Julie, though she’s been better in other things. Sometimes Lean seems to be stifling her spontaneity.
Rita Tushingham. Her tears at her childhood memory of abandonment were the one bit that moved me, though I wasn’t sure the character should cry. Robert DeNiro, in an early interview, pointed out that people recounting traumatic memories most usually do it with no emotion at all, with a denial of the emotion.
Tarek Sharif. The one good bit of family casting — Omar’s real son plays the young Omar. He seems to have been dubbed by a young Englishwoman, giving him a VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED quality, but I can live with it if he can.
Tom Courtenay. Typically a callow, likable actor, he plays shrill extremists here and in KING RAT. He’s quite good at it.
People who are wasted ~
Ralph Richardson. Always nice to have him around, of course, but he has simply nothing to play.
Geraldine Chaplin. Potentially a more interesting actor than Julie Christie — look at her career — here, she’s purely boring in her nice pink hat, because her character is terribly, terribly dull. By avoiding being jealous she does defy the cliché, but she defies it in a way that lets the drama escape like leaking helium. Just wait for NASHVILLE, the rematch, though.
Jack MacGowran. It’s not a proper MacGowran performance if you can understand more than one word in ten. Lean seems to have insisted on enunciation, an alien custom to the Great Garbler.
Watching this with friends at home rather than on the big screen (I did have the pleasure once), you can’t escape the ridiculous plotting that has this rather small cast of characters forever bumping into one another by chance across the length and breadth of Russia. It seems like the book has even more of this. Nothing to be done. Looks like Bolt and Lean invented the scene which moved my friend Morag so much — one last chance encounter, and one last tram reference, isn’t going to do any harm, is it? Trams and trains haunt the narrative, perhaps because the human characters all seem to be gliding about on fixed rails too.