Tag Archives: Tom Courtenay

Doctor Zhivago (1965)

(On Cable TV, June 2018) I have little patience for anything these days, so getting me to sit down for three-and-a-half-hours to watch a Russian novel turned into an epic movie, even a David Lean movie, is asking too much. It took me four days to get through Doctor Zhivago, and I kept going only because the film is of some historical interest. Even then, the journey was gruelling. It’s not that the film is 193 minutes long—it’s that even for that amount of time, not a lot actually happens. It is a generational romance set against the backdrop of early-twentieth-century Russia, and yet it feels uncomfortably small, with a handful of characters bouncing against each other even in a country as large as Russia. To be fair, Omar Sharif is fantastic as the titular Zhivago, and Julie Christie isn’t bad as the lead female character. This being said, the show is stolen by smaller roles: Rod Steiger is delightfully evil as a well-connected politician, while Tom Courtenay has a great arc as the initially meek Pasha. Still, much of Doctor Zhivago unfolds slowly, with characters having intimate conversations while the country goes up in flames somewhere in the background. For an epic, it feels curiously small-scale and focused on melodramatic plot threads. Reading about the film, its troubled production and the historical context of the original novel is more interesting than the film itself—as I was wondering how a Russian film could be produced by a big Hollywood studio in the middle of the Cold War, the film doesn’t exactly act as pro-Soviet propaganda … and adapting the novel was seen as a big gesture against the USSR given that it had banned the book. Still, the result is an often-exasperating experience as nothing happens for a very long time. The film’s high points (such as the moments immediately preceding its intermission) aren’t, quite enough to make up for the rest, including an even more punishing framing device that adds even more minutes to an already bloated result. But at last it’s done: I have watched Doctor Zhivago and don’t have to watch it ever again in order to say that I did.