David Lean’s Doctor Zhivago: A Multi-faceted Masterpiece

February 1, 2019

 

A vast snowy landscape in the forefront of the Ural Mountains; sleigh riding characters clad in fur; a country house in Varykino, Russia - transformed into an ‘ice-castle’. It has been said that David Lean’s vast landscapes and epic proportions are as significant in his films as the characters or plot, and after watching Doctor Zhivago, one can surely understand why.

 

A love story famously set with the backdrop of the Russian Revolution, the plot follows protagonists Lara Antipova and Yuri Zhivago as their lives interweave with each other, an insignificant relationship in the face of Russia’s turmoil - and yet their hope and devastation reflect that of the country’s people.

Lean’s adaptation of Boris Pasternak’s novel is complete with immense scenery, longing expressions and of course the famous music by Maurice Jarre, adorned with the recurring sound of balalaikas. Nothing is more suitable to finish a cold January evening than to be transported to the romance of two doomed lovers, their fateful encounters, teases of happiness amidst the chaos of revolution and war.

 

Although released in 1965, Doctor Zhivago is a film with plenty to still enjoy today, whether you are a fan of Russian history and politics, beautiful sets and scenery, the ‘soap operatic’ acting that’s so reminiscent of its time or the beautiful soundtrack - this film is a many-faceted work of art, just one among the collection of Lean’s award-winning pieces.

 

With a running time of almost three and a half hours, embarking upon this film may be daunting in an age where everything is sped up for our convenience - but trust me when I say it’s worth the watch. I grew up hearing about Lean from both my school, where he in fact attended, and now has an award named after him, and my father, with whom I watched it with.

 

This film takes you through a timeline of Russia’s history alongside the lifetime of two people, who grasp what moments of romance that their lives allow them, in the context of their political geography. This is added to by the many aspects of the film, whether it be their respective families, or the relentless and powerful Komarovski.

 

It is true that Lean’s scenery is a key feature within his work, as although this is the first film of his that I watched, the awe-inspiring landscapes that fill the screen resonated with me more than I expected. One would assume that with the technological advantages we have today, films and their settings would be at their peak, amazing and shocking people with each new release. Therefore I did not expect to be so struck by the beauty and expanse of so many scenes, particularly all those in the snow, such as Yuri and Lara arriving at the country house completely encased with ice, or the vast plains of Russia, serving as a backdrop for characters’ sleigh riding through, or as the view out of a steam train window where Yuri is gazing.

 

This for me was one of the most poignant aspects of the film, competing only with the devastating plot of Yuri and Lara’s relationship. Their insignificance as two individuals juxtaposing the immediate threat of war and revolution does not belittle their doomed love - but emphasises it, as it strengthens the hope of the viewers for their permanent reconciliation, yet only adding uncertainty. It puts a human face on revolution.

As I write this, I have the film’s balalaika's playing in my head, a sound which forever sketches images of forlorn gazes, snowy landscapes and fading scenes.

 

Doctor Zhivago won five academy awards and is still the eighth-highest grossing film of all time in the US and Canada. Therefore, if you don’t believe me, I hope those figures are persuading, as I believe this film will only enrich all those who watch it.

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First published in 1965, InQuire is the University of Kent student newspaper.

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