Zhivago swears the Hippocratic oath, a passionate prescription that burns with poetry but ultimately harms the ones he loves, tearing apart his family like the crumbling foundation of Russia. David Lean’s epic romance conflates the Russian Civil War with a secret affair, involving a nexus of transitory characters whose singular fate is abolished amid the collective consciousness.
The film begins with workers marching like ants from a darkened portal, a hive mentality responding to the drone of their masters. A great concrete damn dominates the composition, a masterful display of human engineering whose cost is balanced in suffering for the almighty State, a grand metaphor depicting the controlled devaluation of humanity as progress is leaked through the floodgates during the storms of resistance. An ominous General calls to a young proletariat girl and orders her to his office: Lean frames the film with this narrative device as General Yevgraf Zhivago interrogates her, believing this bland young lady to be the daughter of his half-brother Yuri and his mistress Lara, the by-product of this inspiration a legendary (though censored by the State!) book of poems, blood reduced to ink, flesh transformed into parchment, bodies lost in mass graves now bound in leather.
The story of Dr. Yuri Zhivago and the waifish Lara Antipova is told in flashback as General Yevgraf pieces together his familial history in search of the missing daughter, mirroring the mystical quest for Anastasia. The film masterfully dissolves from third-person to first-person though it retains Yevgraf’s limited narration, and Yuri’s story begins with the death of their mother and a gift of music. Lean’s indelible imagery captures the spirit of tragic love and denial amid the chaos of war and bloodshed, utilizing bright saturated colors and the widescreen compositions to create depth and the illusion of a world transcending the frame, as if life is happening outside the panoramic narrative. Lean’s use of space is both intimate and claustrophobic, while also creating distance and isolating characters amid the grand dioramas. Omar Sharif imbues Yuri with a compassionate and intellectual understanding of human behavior, a man whose simplicity is complex. It’s a wonderfully understated performance as Yuri becomes spectator to his own life, a victim of circumstances beyond his control, though never compromising himself. This is important because the audience must still find sympathy with the film’s namesake: after all, he cheats on his loving wife, discards his family, and carries on a disastrous affair with his muse Lara. Julie Christie exudes elegance and waifish charm as Lara, yet is empowered with an iron-willed determination, her stout femininity contrasted with Yuri’s shy masculinity.
To Lean’s credit, DR. ZHIVAGO doesn’t sink into polemic but remains buoyant as a tragically mislaid love story, where the gift of Art gives hope to future generations.
Final Grade: (B+)