Gorgeous visual-and-audio summary of Pasternak’s love story
Twice before reading Boris Pasternak’s great novel’s love story, having the backdrop of the Russian Revolution, I had watched director David Lean’s epic dramatic romance, a gorgeous visual-and-audio three-hour-and-twenty-minute summary of the book as adapted into a screenplay by Robert Bolt.
In this my third viewing of the film, which won five Oscars and received five more nominations, I found its appearance thin when compared to the rich trove of pages filled with descriptive prose and delicate poems, each like a frosted pane of glass fastidiously assembled from fascinating ice crystals. Transferring the frozen patterns of pure language into liquid images of cinematography, dialogue, and music (original score composed and conducted by Maurice Jarre) required the hot touch of editing; distilled water has a different character from scintillating snowflakes.
Years after the revolution, in search of his half brother’s female child, Comrade General Yevgraf Zhivago (Alec Guinness), who serves as the narrator, inquires during an interview with a young woman, selected from among a group of Soviet workers, named Tonya Komarovsky (Rita Tushingham), who has only a slight remembrance of her early childhood and parents: “How did you come to be lost?”
Events shift backward to the funeral of the mother of eight-year-old Yuri Zhivago (Tarek Sharif, son of Omar) on the bleak steppes before he’s adopted into the family of Alexander (Ralph Richardson) and Anna Gromeko (Siobhan McKenna), where he’s raised in Moscow with their daughter Tonya (Geraldine Chaplin) and becomes a physician and poet.
We first catch sight of Lara (Julie Christie) at seventeen and Yuri (Omar Sharif) together – he having not yet completed his medical studies and just raced to catch the trolley on which she’s a passenger – when they’re unaware of each other in the Russian capital still ruled by the tsar, as a premonitory spark jumps from the overhead electric cable.
On the night that Lara’s secret fiancé, the 26-year-old, pure and high-minded Pasha Antipov (Tom Courtenay), marches with peaceful demonstrators (“Brotherhood and Freedom”), Victor Komarovsky (Rod Steiger), a cunningly insidious businessman “in with everyone,” escorts Lara, his mistress’s daughter, to a fancy restaurant (the widowed mother too ill to dine with him), contrasting poverty in the streets with the luxury within. As Yuri watches horrified from a balcony, mounted troops assault the demonstrators, trampling women and children while Pasha receives a head wound from a Dragoon’s saber; at the same time Komarovsky takes advantage of Lara’s innocence as they ride home in a carriage.
Shortly afterward Tonya returns home from a sojourn in Paris, ready for her engagement to Yuri. Yuri first sets his eyes on Lara when he accompanies Dr Boris Kurt on an urgent request from a scared Komarovsky to rescue Lara’s mother from attempted suicide by poisoning.
Advised against marrying Pasha, then raped and called “a slut,” Lara shows up at a Christmas party, where the nuptials of Yuri and Tonya are announced, with the revolver Pasha had entrusted to her and shoots her malefactor. As his wound’s treated by Yuri – who asks, “What happens to a girl like that, when a man like you is finished with her?” – Komarovsky replies: “I give her to you … A wedding present.”
Four years later on the battlefront as war rages between the tsar’s army and the Kaiser’s Germans – “our cursed capacity for suffering,” remarks Yevgraf of his fellow Russians – Dr Zhivago again meets Lara, a volunteer nurse, looking for her husband Pasha; for six months under harsh conditions they work closely together in a hospital. Both have left a child back home: Sasha with Tonya and her father, and Katya with Lara’s mother.
When he returns home, following the war’s end and success of the Bolshevik revolution, to find the Gromeko mansion overtaken by families of the new proletariat, Yuri, almost always smiling, cheerful, and accommodating, readily accepts the new arrangements; but when the revolutionaries demand even more sacrifices from the former aristocrats, Yuri protests confiscation of their personal property.
In their first face-to-face encounter, Yevgraf, a policeman, after suggesting that the doctor consider joining the Party in “cutting out the tumors of injustice,” informs Yuri, noncommittal in his politics, of the official disapproval of his “petit-bourgeois and self-indulgent” poems, recommending they depart Moscow for Gromeko’s old estate in Varykino.
The family of four rides inside a boxcar like cattle on a train into the Urals; but before reaching their destination Yuri is taken before Commander Strelnikov, whom he recognizes as Lara’s Pasha from the Christmas six years earlier. Settled into a cottage (forbidden occupation of the main residence) with his wife, son, and father-in-law, making do as best they can, Yuri learns of Lara’s living in the nearby town of Yuriatin.
With Tonya again pregnant, Yuri begins a double life with Lara, before he’s forcibly taken as a medical officer by the Red partisans fighting a civil war against the White Russians. Eventually he deserts, makes an arduously long trek through the bitter winter weather on foot, before being reunited with Lara, who has a letter from Tonya telling him of having been deported to France.
Returning to Varykino with Lara, taking up residence in the main house and composing verse at the desk where Anna Gromeko had taught him to write, Yuri awaits their fate when Komarovsky, an official with the new government, makes his appearance, offering to provide safe transport for the couple and Katya.
Watch the movie first, then, if you haven’t already, read the book while listening to the soundtrack.
Doctor Zhivago is available at UW’s Coe Library, the Albany County Public Library, and for rent at Hastings Entertainment.