This week we got the sad news that another legendary actor has passed into acting legend. Omar Sharif, Oscar nominated star of Lawrence of Arabia, has died at the age of 83. In his honour, we review one of his best known and best loved movies; David Lean’s epic film of Boris Pasternak’s classic novel, Doctor Zhivago.
The film begins in Russia just prior to the outbreak of World War One, and continues through the Russian Revolution of 1917, and the following civil war. Yuri Zhivago (Sharif) is an orphan taken in by his mother’s friends, the Gromekos, and he grows up in Moscow alongside their daughter Tonya (Geraldine Chaplin). He attends medical school and becomes a doctor, but poetry is where his heart truly lies. Zhivago marries Tonya, his best friend, but harbours a burning passion for Larissa Antipova (Julie Christie), a complex and troubled young woman he has a series of chance encounters with.
When war and then revolution break out, Zhivago must leave his family to take care of the wounded, and encounters Lara once again. He finds himself under suspicion from the authorities due to his subversive poetry, and is torn between his duty to family and country, and his love for Lara.
Surprisingly, Doctor Zhivago was not particularly well received when it first hit cinemas in 1965. Critics complained it was too long, and that it seemed to trivialise Russian history (slightly ironic, considering that Zhivago’s poetry is condemned in the film for being too personal and ‘petit-bourgeois’). Over the years, however, the film has been gradually acknowledged as a true jewel in the crown of 1960s cinema, a romantic epic that boasts intense performances and stunning cinematography.
Supporting actors Geraldine Chaplin, Rod Steiger and Alec Guiness (as Yuri’s estranged brother Yevgrav) give sterling turns, but the show is rightly stolen by stars Sharif and Christie. Sharif gives a truly genuine performance as Zhivago, portraying him as a man with deeply held convictions and an unpretentious appreciation for life; the poetic soul of the character shines through as Sharif gazes at the rising sun in the midst of the devastation of war.
Christie matches Sharif intensity for intensity with her portrayal of Lara, a woman whose complicated passions seem to frighten even herself. The film stays with the characters over a period of some years, and Christie successfully carries Lara from childlike innocence through sexual awakening to resigned – but hopeful – strength in adulthood.
The film is full of stunning images which haunt the viewer after the credits roll. Although the film was mostly shot in Spain (Pasternak’s book was still banned in the Soviet Union at the time) the snowy and mountainous Russian landscape was expertly recreated, with the ‘ice palace’ at Varykino (a house in Soria filled with frozen beeswax) being a stand-out set.
Ice, or the melting/cracking thereof, forms many of the most beautiful and significant scenes in the film; a sheet of ice that has formed on the side of train is smashed to give the occupants a view of the passing landscape, soldiers march across a crunching, cracking ice plain, and Zhivago gazes at spiralling frost patterns on a window, enthralled as the growing sun melts them away into a field of daffodils, heralding the coming of spring (and the rekindling of his relationship with Lara). In what is probably one of the most famous scenes in cinematic history, Zhivago rushes through the frozen palace to get a last look at Lara from a high window; finding it completely covered with ice, he smashes it.
The use of lighting is also startlingly affecting; an intense conversation between Lara and Yuri is accentuated by the bright sunlight falling onto Christie’s golden hair, while Sharif’s face is almost completely obscured by shadow.
Doctor Zhivago is one of the last great classics of the ‘epic cinema’ genre, and yet, the film is so timeless that watching it always comes with a sense of acute immediacy, making it very hard to believe it was filmed fifty years ago, when Sharif was only 33. It’s a lasting testament to his serious talent, and will forever remain a true cinematic landmark.