Omar Sharif and Julie Christie fall in love all over again in this digitally restored reissue
A swooningly romantic cinematic chocolate box timed to light up the festive season, Doctor Zhivago returns in a 4K digital restoration, with its snow sparkling more pristinely than ever. David Lean’s epic, expensive adaptation of Boris Pasternak’s intricate and acclaimed novel was the winner of five Academy Awards at the 1966 ceremony and became one of the most financially successful films of all time, although it was not without its critics.
In this love triangle set in early 20th century Russia amidst great social upheaval, Omar Sharif plays the titular medic and poet Yuri who marries his adopted sister Tonya (Geraldine Chaplin). Their loving union is jeopardised when Yuri falls hard for the disgraced Lara (Julie Christie), who becomes entwined with her mother’s dastardly lover Komarovsky (an effectively unpleasant Rod Steiger) as a teenager, before wedding the principled Pasha (Tom Courtenay) and reinventing herself as a nurse during World War I. As the years roll on, these five characters are brought together and torn apart in their shifting guises and fortunes.
Lean controversially instructed screenwriter Robert Bolt to focus on the romance and downplay the book’s politics, while reviewers at the time dismissed it as a lavish soap opera. It’s true that it frequently surrenders to flamboyant melodrama and suffers by failing to engage with the political context, which becomes instead a tumultuous backdrop, while the framing device which sees Alec Guinness’s Yevgraf narrate the story to Yuri and Lara’s adult daughter (played by Rita Tushingham) is somewhat unnecessary (Lean felt that, given the long run-up to the love scenes, audiences needed reassurance that the leads would eventually get together).
Just as the primary filming location of Spain might seem an odd substitution for Russia, the Egyptian Sharif is a less than obvious choice for the Slavic protagonist, but he fittingly projects Yuri’s poetic soul – it’s affecting to witness the film through his anguished eyes – while Christie is simply divine. Also impossible to underestimate is the cinematic craft of it all: the undeniable impact of Lean’s sure hand combined with Freddie Young’s gorgeous photography (he replaced original DP Nicolas Roeg), John Box’s exemplary, ingenious production design and Phyllis Dalton’s influential costumes.
Film is, after all, a predominantly visual medium and the imagery routinely astounds: the weeping vase of sunflowers; the ice palace crafted from white wax; the way the massacre of peaceful protestors intertwines with our heroine’s loss of innocence, as Komarovsky violently kisses her; Lara being dramatically illuminated to Yuri when he lays eyes on her for the first time, as she sits devastated and sobbing in her mother’s dressmaking shop; alongside myriad other moments of unforgettable sadness and romance, all gorgeously supported by Maurice Jarre’s iconic score.
Whatever its flaws, films made with this much chutzpah last forever. Doctor Zhivago wears its daunting runtime like the lightest of shawls and, even after all these years, it's still worth surrendering your heart to.
Selected rerelease from Fri 27 Nov.