I threw out my back recently, which is not incidental to why I am reviewing Doctor Zhivago. It is the kind of film you can enjoy when you have the free time to bask in its leisurely pace, the various characters and locations and the lush excess of it all. When you’re on your back, trying to move as little as possible, it makes for the perfect spectacle to unfold in front of you, engaging enough to distract, but not exciting enough to cause any strain.
That may seem an odd way to describe a film from one of Britain’s most acclaimed filmmakers. While Lean deserves his reputation as a master, he isn’t my master in the sense of exerting a major influence or of creating films that I go out of my way to see. Zhivago is almost the prototypical Lean film. It isn’t as original or austere as his most famous and honored, Lawrence of Arabia, but for all the latter’s undeniable qualities, it has always been a movie I respect more than I like. Zhivago can just be enjoyed for its broad, expansive scale and scope, its measured intelligence, visual flair, in short, Lean’s much vaunted craftsmanship.
Lawrence and Zhivago shared many of the same personnel: scenarist Robert Bolt, cinematographer Freddie Young, designer John Box, composer Maurice Jarre and of course Omar Sharif as the minor Russian poet through whose eyes we experience the Russian Revolution. I put Zhviago’s story that way because this is very much a film about how little people muddle through Big Events. There is no pretense that social conflicts will be analyzed or explained. The Revolution is a given, the situation against which characters are measured. In that sense, Zhivago’s revolution is something like the cataclysm in a disaster film, sort of a Hurricane Vladimir battering the lives of people who ignored the forecast.
Instead of historical examination, we watch the story unfold calmly, with each character demonstrating his or her strengths and failings while bombs go off around them. With Young and Box’s help, Lean assures that the Revolution never disrupts the exquisitely placid surface. Even when the physical environment is in tatters, they find means of making destruction pictorially pleasing. As a result, there’s never any real sense of threat. Lean and company’s stuffily perfect mise-en-scène assures us that the characters will be taken care of by the off-camera technicians, waiting to straighten their hair when the director yells “Cut!”
The effect of this literal minded perfectionism is beautifully implausible. If the romance between Zhivago and Lara (Julie Christie) is no more convincing than the Russian Revolution, you don’t particularly care. All that matters is to escape for three hours with these impossibly beautiful people into the gorgeously sumptuous unreality of the movies. When done at this level of expensive, fastidious care, that indulgent fantasy is more than enough.