Blu-ray Review: Doctor Zhivago 45th Anniversary Edition (1965)

Now Available to Own

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Whether or not you know your Bolsheviks from your Cossacks is beside the point since more than politics, the universal language of love is all you need to follow epic filmmaker David Lean’s sweeping romance. Although obviously knowledge of Boris Pasternak’s novel or Warren Beatty’s film Reds may help you glean a little more from the political backdrop, Robert Bolt’s phonebook sized screenplay is far more concerned with the human side to the conflicts that spanned the first world war, Russia’s revolution and civil war all the way up through the 1940s.

Playing slow-pitch softball with us by developing a “let me tell you a story” framing device that chronicles the romantic relationship between the film’s leads Lara (Julie Christie) and Yuri (Omar Sharif) – despite the fact that it’s laughably illogical as the character doing the narrating wasn’t privy to most of the events he shares – we first encounter the characters long before they meet and eventually became extramarital lovers.

Following the abandonment by his father and death of his mother, young Yuri Zhivago was taken in by the kind Gromeko family, eventually following in the patriarchal footsteps by practicing medicine despite his true passion as a published poet. Developing a strong bond with the daughter of the family – Tonya Gromeko (Geraldine Chaplin) – Yuri eventually does what the family has intended and marries the kind woman, even though his feelings of love for her may be more platonic than romantic.

Yet perhaps he wouldn’t have ever questioned his relationship status or the happiness of such without the outbreak of civil unrest, war and the intriguing way that his path continually crosses that of the lovely angelic blonde Lara (Christie).

Raised by her seamstress mother, Lara finds the start of her life as a woman jeopardized by a cruel attorney (Rod Steiger) who moves from her selfish mother to the teenage girl, raping her in a horrific sequence that finds our young heroine eventually crossing the snow-filled road and shooting him at close range in front of dozens of party attendees.

Eventually marrying the passionate Bolshevik Pasha (Tom Courtenay) who fathers Lara’s daughter before vanishing in the war, Lara joins the effort as a nurse, working alongside Dr. Yuri Zhivago who becomes quickly enamored of her. And despite their duties to their families, when they stumble across one another in an entirely different region to which both have fled separately, Yuri begins leaving his very pregnant wife alone on a routine basis to go to town where Lara – now his mistress – is waiting.

Divided between the women, wherein he’s morally obligated to Tonya but unwilling and unable to give up the woman who inspires his poetry, the rest of the overly long 197 minute work centers on their roads ahead as lovers together and apart.

Given the Warner Brothers Blu-ray Book treatment recently employed on North By Northwest, this lush three disc set which divides up the special features (including 11 vintage behind-the-scenes extras, audio commentary and one new “Celebration”) and film on two separate discs and includes a bonus CD soundtrack sampler of the instantly recognizable score, Zhivago has never looked as beautiful as it does here. Yet I must confess that the originally MGM feature required some sonic adjustments in the speaker settings to get a better balance between the low and high noises on the track.

As the eighth highest grossing film of all-time, Zhivago lovers are sure to want to seek out the royal treatment given to David Lean’s classic film that admittedly looks a bit more 1960s than it does 1920s. But despite the jaw-dropping transfer and removal of old dust and debris from the print, it still doesn’t make up for the fact that the movie is a bit overwrought in trying to adequately present a patchwork quilt’s worth of storylines with the thinnest of threads – the film’s questionable framing device – over a patience testing near 200 minute running time that could’ve easily been chopped down by at least a half an hour.

And while Julie Christie is as lovely as ever in a role that producer Carlo Ponti had originally wanted his wife Sophia Loren to play, it’s the devastatingly handsome Omar Sharif who most impresses and angers as he cheats back and forth between two great women, never sure if he should trust his head (Tonya) or his heart (Lara) in a role that still manages to take us aback today in his blatant disregard for a very pregnant wife.

And even though David Lean’s instincts to make this the Russian snow-covered version of Lawrence of Arabia undoubtedly led to its lukewarm critical reception back in 1965, the five-time Oscar nominated box office smash remains as sumptuous as ever, regardless of how much caffeine you need to get through it or whether or not you’re an expert on the history of the former Soviet Union.

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FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I received a review copy of this title in order to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique.