Doctor Zhivago is an apocalypse movie in the guise of a romantic period piece. Beloved for the way it set hearts aflutter, I found it to be at its most affecting whenever its central love story fell to its knees in the face of world-ending forces. Directed by David Lean and adapted from the Boris Pasternak novel, this is a film that may, in the end, summon more tragedy than it means to.
It is remembered, of course, for the decades-long love (much of it unrequited) between Zhivago (Omar Sharif), a poet and general practitioner, and Lara (Julie Christie), a Moscow seamstress. Set around the time of World War I and the Russian Revolution, the film traces their fate alongside that of the country’s, when life under the czar went through a tumultuous transition to life under communism.
And so Doctor Zhivago aims to make the political personal, and vice versa – a goal it mostly achieves. Early on, Lean stages a parallel sequence involving Zhivago and Lara that takes place before they’ve even met. As Zhivago watches from his well-appointed balcony, peaceful protestors are run down by the czar’s soldiers on a Moscow street. Meanwhile, Lara rides a sleigh nearby with a lecherous family “friend” (Rod Steiger) who forcibly takes advantage of her. As the film cuts back and forth between the two lines of action, there is a loss of innocence on both a grand and personal scale.
The sequence also evokes the metaphysical connection between Zhivago and Lara. The first time they share the screen together, it is unwittingly, while on a trolley car. Notice how something on the street outside draws their attention – and theirs alone – so that they both turn their heads in the same manner. Later, Lara sits in an upper attic room, where high above her is a window with frosted glass, illuminated by a single candle. As she looks up, the camera cuts to the street below, where Zhivago is passing in his sleigh and is suddenly moved to notice the window’s light.
In these ways, Lean uses the camera to bolster the romance. And Christie, both gorgeous and gallant, is in lock step with her director, lending a sense of individualism to the sort of role that’s often defined by the surrounding men (I’m thinking of Joan Fontaine in Max Ophuls’ Letter From an Unknown Woman). But Sharif? Well, I’m perplexed as to his legendary charms.
Sharif? I’m perplexed as to his legendary charms.
I certainly understand the narrative appeal of a character like Zhivago. An artist and a professional, he’s also remarkably modern in his understanding of Lara. Even after learning how she has been “disgraced,” he never shames her. And when they eventually grow closer, while working in a makeshift hospital on the Ukrainian front, it’s as colleagues first. Yet the way Sharif plays him verges on the maddening. Whereas Christie lends a variety of expressions to her roiling, conflicted passions, Sharif relies on a singular, trembling, dewy stare – the same one he gave to the massacre of the protestors at the movie’s start. Aside from that pained expression, Sharif’s Zhivago largely greets the tides of history with a simpering, Pollyanna shrug. Returning from the war to find his lavish home divided among dozens of others by local party officials, he smiles and says, “This is a better arrangement.” His defining characteristic for much of the movie is a calm acceptance, so when the last act calls on him to show some fiery conviction, I hardly believed it.
Lean seems intent on emphasizing Zhivago’s personal tragedy through Sharif’s face – there are an unconscionable number of close-ups – yet the movie is better at capturing loss and disillusionment through other camerawork and composition. Mostly regarded as a landscape artist, Lean’s handling of mise en scene in Doctor Zhivago is also evidenced in the intimate, interior scenes. The frosted glass doorway of Lara’s dress shop is used as an effective framing device a handful of times, lending at turns mystery, threat and sorrow to the figures behind it. Mirrors are employed to such a degree that the film sometimes feels as if it’s taking place in split-screen, with one side suggesting a dream and the other a harsh reality.
Perhaps the signature compositional motif in Doctor Zhivago is a wide shot that captures two oppositional lines of movement. The film opens with queues of Soviet laborers going in and out of their place of work, passing each other along the way. Later, a ragtag band of retreating Russian soldiers meets a fresh battalion marching toward the front. And then there are the trains, racing past each other on the vast Russian plains in an arresting symbol of a country passing itself in the night.
The most striking sequence in Doctor Zhivago takes place on one of those trains, and brings me back to this idea of apocalypse. Fleeing Moscow, Zhivago is squeezed into an overcrowded boxcar with his wife, young son and father-in-law. They barrel through a landscape of ice (surely this was inspiration for Bong Joon-Ho’s Snowpiercer), leaving a tattered city behind them, hurtling toward an unknown future. At one point the train slows and the doors open, revealing a village that has been inexplicably ravaged – houses burnt, women running in all directions, cows dead in the snow. It’s a jarring moment that brings history from romantic backdrop to immediate forefront. Sometimes, the problems of one ineffectual doctor don’t amount to a hill of beans.