Sunday, July 22, 2012

Ready For An Upbeat Revolution Because Dr. Zhivago Isn’t One!

The Good: Decent soundtrack, Acting, Cinematography
The Bad: Characters, Unrelenting depressing story, Pacing
The Basics: What could be an evocative love story set during the Russian Revolution, ends up as a good looking, but unrewarding film.

On Babylon 5, Susan Ivonova repeatedly reports that her bleak outlook on life and the universe is because she is Russian. It becomes a somewhat tired joke even in the first season. Having sat through the Russian epic, Doctor Zhivago, I now see that she has something of a talent for understatement. Somewhere along the way, I must have stopped liking becoming mired in seas of disappointment and despair; Magnolia remains one of my favorite films and Brazil is my all time favorite, but Doctor Zhivago lacked something that allowed me to accept the other two. Vision? Imagination? Creativity? Something.

Andrey Zhivago, father of little Yury, kills himself after meeting with the nefarious Victor Komarovsky. Yury, now orphaned, is taken in by Gromykos and is raised as the brother of Tonya. Yury yearns to be a poet, but finds himself becoming more and more of a skilled surgeon as he grows up. Meanwhile, Komarovsky has married and finds himself actively pursuing his stepdaughter, Lara. Lara flees into a marriage with a young Red, as the Russian Revolution explodes. Lara, a nurse, meets Yury, who is now married to Tonya. Yury returns home to his family, finds himself thinking of Lara and leaves Tonya (now with a second child) to be with Lara. Lara, in turn, finds herself hounded through the years by Komarovsky, who does his best to rescue her from the bloodshed the country has become engulfed in.


It's longer than any one of the The Lord Of The Rings movies and feels about three times longer than that entire series. The truth of it is that Doctor Zhivago is not a bad film. In fact, there is quite a bit to recommend it.

The first worthwhile aspect of the movie is the cinematography. This is a movie that looks good. The lighting is fantastic, the scenery is beautiful and the color contrasts are wonderful.

As well, the acting is all quite good and convincing. Sam Neill is wonderfully menacing as Victor Komarovsky. Unlike anything else I've seen him in, where he is understated, subtle, and usually good-natured, in Doctor Zhivago, he is threatening, brooding and outright haunting. He plays the villain quite well and there are many points that it appears he is fully savoring the role, despite how despicable his character is.

Keira Knightly and Alexandra Maria Lara are superb as the two female leads. Knightly presents Lara as a competent, yet deeply traumatized woman who has a great deal of intelligence and cunning to accent her internal strength. Lara (Alexandra Maria, not the character played by Knightly), explodes into the film as more than simply a pretty face. She has a charisma to her that makes her instantly watchable and intriguing.

The lead actor, Hans Matheson, does an equally good job as Yuri. Matheson infuses a deep humanity into Zhivago that makes him empathetic throughout the war scenes. Matheson does an expert job of conveying emotions of loss and loneliness with his face and in subtle changes of his tone of voice. It is easy to dismiss him as a pretty boy when he first appears on screen, but much more difficult as the piece progresses. There is substance to Matheson's performance that makes the viewer believe the years are passing for his character.

Unfortunately for this version of Doctor Zhivago, with its awkward pacing, it feels like the years are passing for the viewer as well. I love epics, I honestly do. In high school, my friends and I would get together and watch all three Star Wars or Alien movies in a row. I sometimes contemplate a day long The Lord Of The Rings marathon. Epic can still move, but this movie does not.

What makes most great epics move is the characters. If there characters are interesting and continue to develop, hours worth of movies or television can just fly right by. For example, on Star Trek Deep Space Nine, there are six-episode and ten-episode story arcs wherein the characters are dealing with various war-related experiences and adventures. Because there is so much going on, with such vivid and intriguing characters, I can sit down and watch them (these large parts of the sixth and seventh seasons of Deep Space Nine) in one sitting.

Unfortunately, this version of Doctor Zhivago fails to pop on the character front. Zhivago seems quite likable and his attraction to Lara makes a great deal of sense when they are stranded at the battlefield hospital together. I'm not much of a prude, so I could have understood Zhivago straying from his marriage amid the loneliness and fear that pervades a war zone. It, then, seems ridiculous to me when he manages to avoid the temptation from simple proximity and their affair comes much later, when Zhivago's family life with Tonya is going quite well.

Equally inexplicable is the way Tonya simple disappears from the film in the latter half. I spent a large portion of the movie figuring Zhivago as a man of some character and concern for the woman he grew up with and loved that it seemed incomprehensible to me that Yuri does not look Tonya up after all of the fighting. Indeed, perhaps the greatest lesson of Doctor Zhivago could be "fidelity leads to longer, happier lives."

As it is, everyone in Doctor Zhivago is, was or ends up either completely miserable or dead. A very Russian movie, by Ivonnova's accounts and by ours. The final glaring problem is with the realism. The realism of the Russian Revolution is too accurately portrayed. No, not with the violence; I'm not a prude for that, either. It's in the costuming. The Red Army and the White Army are fighting each other in a pretty brutal civil war. The problem is, their uniforms are almost identical throughout, so if you walk out of the room to get a drink and come back and Yuri has fallen in with some soldiers, it's almost impossible to tell which side he's currently allied with.

All in all, a good looking, well acted piece that is much too slow with characters that are ultimately not empathetic enough to keep the viewer interested. An man, is it long. And depressing. It's so . . . Russian!

For other works with Sam Neill, be sure to check out my reviews of:
The Vow
Bicentennial Man
Jurassic Park
The Piano


For other film reviews, be sure to visit my Movie Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2012, 2004 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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