Doctor Zhivago

You know a movie’s going to be good when it opens with an overture. I’ve actually not seen any other films that have one (though a few people on twitter have informed me that it used to be fairly common for old film epics), but I knew it was a promising start to this latest film about Soviet-induced misery, Doctor Zhivago.

Unlike the last two installments, which were either obscure (The Chekist) or at least not very well-known in the United States (Katyn), Zhivago is one of the better-known Hollywood epics, and “epic” is just the right word for it – with a wide-ranging plot and a run-time of three hours and twenty minutes, it’s a project just to watch. Fortunately, though, it doesn’t feel that long; the pacing if fairly quick, and it never dwells on a particular scene for very long. It’s also a visually interesting film, with a variety of settings and some unusual camerawork (e.g., following a character by looking in through outside windows). A bit distractingly, one can also play a game of “place the accent;” it has a mix of American and British actors, a couple French minor characters, and a couple guys who do a Russian accent, which is rather confusing.

Anyway, the plot is well-constructed, and though the characters are believable I didn’t find any that I particularly liked. Many minor characters come and go, and the two female leads aren’t particularly interesting, though Lara does have more personality than Tonya. Zhivago himself is a little too idealistic for me, and though this kind of character often does have an appeal, a couple incidents killed most of the sympathy I had for him. One was putting Lara and her daughter in danger because he didn’t want to accept help from the unsavoury Komarovsky, as well as carrying on an adulterous affair with Lara in the first place.

Speaking of Komarovsky, as a realist and a cynic he makes an interesting contrast to Zhivago. Unfortunately, he’s also overly concerned with appearances, and his treatment of women is, well, on the abusive side.

That leaves Zhivago’s brother, Yevgraf Zhivago, a decent man (well, for a Bolshevik). I was interested in his desire to find his niece at the beginning and end of the film (years after the rest of the film, chronologically), but unfortunately we don’t see much of him outside of this framing device.

There are a couple traps a story can fall into with a story with a distinctive setting. One is to fail to take advantage of the setting, a recent example of which (if I may cross the streams for a moment) is the anime Kids on the Slope, which is about a couple boys in the 1960’s and their love of jazz; the story, though, could take place at pretty much any time in the last sixty years, and their hobby could be just about anything without really affecting the story. This isn’t so much a weakness in itself, but is a failure to use an advantage, like a pitcher throwing right down the middle and the batter failing to even swing.

The other trap is to make the story entirely about the setting; in Doctor Zhivago‘s case, this would make it little more than a propaganda film. Fortunately, Zhivago avoids both pitfalls – this story could only take place in Russia around the time of the Civil War, and while the film focuses on the characters it does give a strong portrayal of its setting. Pre-war, we see the upper class’s refined, even splendid lifestyle, but we also get the sense that all is not well. Obviously, there’s the scene of cossacks attacking a peaceful demonstration, and I’ve already mentioned Komarovsky as a less-than-noble character, but interestingly even Komarovsky, who looks like an upper-class snob, tells the revolutionary Antipov that they’re more alike than he may think. Even if that statement wasn’t sincere, which is certainly possible, Komarovsky clearly could tell which way the wind was blowing.

After the revolution, there are the expected portrayals of Communist excess – partisans coercing Zhivago into their band, others destroying a village suspected of aiding counter-revolutionaries (and apparently the wrong village), as well as a general shabbiness with widespread poverty, overly crowded railways, and cramped living conditions. We also get the more subtle self-righteousness of almost every Soviet official the main characters come across, whether the housing minister, partisan leader, or Antipov, in his case both before but especially after the revolution.

So, Doctor Zhivago is one of those films that hardly needs my recommendation – it lives up to its reputation, and you should watch it if you haven’t already. As a portrayal of the Soviet Union, it’s not explicitly anti-communist as The Chekist or Katyn, but I don’t think anyone’s going to walk away from the film feeling better about the Soviets. Actually, it may be a more effective anti-communist film than those other two, being more accessible than The Chekist and, while Katyn is a solid movie, Zhivago is still the better of the two.

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