Doctor Zhivago is a whistle-stop history of Russia in the first half of the 20th Century. A work camp guard (Alec Guinness) finds a woman he believes to be his niece. To fit jigsaw pieces together he recounts the remarkable life story of her father, Doctor Zhivago (Omar Sharif).
Doctor Zhivago is of a level of film-making only achieved by a select few. Chronicling simultaneously the history of Russia and an intimate personal drama it is at once focused and broad in its brushstrokes. Much like Gone With the Wind it fuses real history with sweeping Hollywood drama, but doesn’t share that film’s lament for a lost period in history that in actual fact is best consigned to the past.
Billed as the last epic from MGM, it subverts the genre by declining in scale as the film progresses. While most of the epics of the 50s and 60s seek to increase the magnitude of the events on screen, Zhivago goes from World War One and the Bolshevik revolution to a focused love story played out in a remote cottage in the countryside.
The production values are astounding. Huge crowd scenes are placed on stunning snow-covered sets used in conjunction with real shots of Russia’s beautiful mountain ranges to lend it authenticity.
The cinematography is marvellous, with director David Lean using every trick at his disposal to create a completely unique perspective for the viewer. Many scenes are expertly shot with heavy use of mirrors and windows, with one stand-out scene being shown entirely through the windows of an apartment building as the camera tracks from room to room.
Guinness and Sharif are re-united after they shared the screen in Lawrence of Arabia three years previously, but interestingly this time it’s Sharif who plays a different race than his own, rather than Guinness playing an Arab. This has a nice balance to it, and shows the versatility of both actors. Sharif is tremendous in the lead role, acting opposite Julie Christie as Lara Antipova and Tom Courtenay as her former lover Pasha Antipov.
This is a cinematic tour de force in every sense of the word, and shows why David Lean will be remembered as one of the greatest directors of all time.