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David Lean demonstrates again why he's a peerless filmmaker of substance and scale, directing Boris Pasternak's tumultuous tale of Russia divided by war and hearts torn by love. Epic images abound: revolution in the streets, an infantry charge into No Man's Land, the train ride to the Urals, an icebound dacha. Golden Globe Best Actor Award winner Omar Sharif plays the title role, in love with Lara (Julie Christie, the National board of Review's Best Actress choice) and caught up in the tidal wave of history.
For more about Doctor Zhivago and the Doctor Zhivago Blu-ray release, see Doctor Zhivago Blu-ray Review published by Kenneth Brown on April 24, 2010 where this Blu-ray release scored 4.0 out of 5.
Starring: Omar Sharif, Julie Christie, Alec Guinness, Geraldine Chaplin, Rod Steiger, Tom Courtenay
Director: David Lean
» See full cast & crew
Doctor Zhivago Blu-ray Review
Warner produces yet another remarkable restoration...
Reviewed by Kenneth Brown, April 24, 2010
If there's one indisputable truism in Hollywood, it's that film is always evolving. Gone are the days of grandiose, golden-age filmmaking, aching romanticism, and unbridled theatricality. Throngs of dusty extras and sprawling historical kingdoms are no longer assembled and constructed, they're manufactured and refined in a computer. The most moving performances ignore the siren song of the old stage, instead drawing upon realism, literalism, and emotional ambiguity. Audiences rarely marvel at the sheer spectacle of a production, demanding more and more from every passing film and inadvertently pressuring directors to abandon story and character to indulge in the latest special effects and craft the most breathtaking worlds. Gone are the days of Doctor Zhivago; the reign of Avatar and its ilk is at hand. But while impassioned filmfans can debate the merits of recent summer blockbusters and the value of aging catalog classics until they're blue in the face, the great cinema of yesteryear continues to slowly fade from our collective cultural consciousness. Doctor Zhivago isn't teeming with modern sensibilities -- embracing sentiment, reveling in majesty and extravagance, and focusing on its star-crossed lovers above all else, it shows every one of its forty-five years -- yet still manages to speak to anyone willing to listen and, imperfect as it may be, warrants our respect, attention, and adoration.
Based on Boris Pasternak's Nobel Prize-winning 1957 novel of the same name, Doctor Zhivago tells the tumultuous tale of a love affair forged in the fires of the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the three-year Civil War that followed. But rather than immerse the film in the politics and conflicts of the era, screenwriter Robert Bolt and legendary director David Lean (Bridge on the River Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia, and A Passage to India) decided to keep their cameras locked on Yuri Zhivago (Omar Sharif), a teary eyed poet, doctor, and romantic; Tonya (Geraldine Chaplin, daughter of Charlie Chaplin), his dutiful wife; and Lara (Julie Christie), a beautiful, strong-willed woman with whom Yuri begins to fall in love. At first, Yuri and Lara share a casual relationship, tending to wounded soldiers during World War I, but years later, they finally succumb to their deep-seated feelings and, despite Yuri's subsequent guilt, grow closer with every fleeting encounter. However, fate is intent on keeping them apart. Tonya becomes pregnant, Yuri is targeted by Soviet censors, tragedy after tragedy strikes, and the story only grows sadder as it approaches its bittersweet conclusion. Yes, Lean's at-times rosy vision has been labeled by some as bloated, overwrought, and ungainly -- none of which is completely unfounded -- and yes, its pacing and plotting meander on occasion, but Lean's heart-wrenching epic nevertheless defies expectation.
Doctor Zhivago may have been released in 1965, but I can't tell you how refreshing it is to spend time with characters affected by history rather than characters actively interfering with its march. Yuri and Lara never emerge as iconic revolutionaries, nor do they defy all odds, rise up, lead a movement, inspire a rebellion, or fuel the terrible events that come to bear on their lives. They're merely lovers brought together by chance and separated by circumstance; weary spirits born, battered, and crushed upon the Red rocks of Soviet Russia. Many critics have declared Lean's single-mindedness infuriating, his heartstrings wound too tightly to evoke the haunting reality of the madness unspooling on-screen. Bah, I say. While I hesitate to use the term "Shakespearean" since so much of Zhivago is anything but, Lean taps into a familiar sense of inevitability -- of unavoidable, perhaps pre-destined tragedy -- that he uses to transform everything from Yuri's marriage to the good doctor's misguided optimism into both a blessing and a curse. It's this same, welcome contrast that permeates every scene and lends the film its resonance and power. Yuri's love for his wife is as pure as his love for his mistress. Alec Guinness' narration offers us access to the story, yet keeps some of its truths hidden. Bolt's dialogue is passionate when hope is failing and heavyhearted when Yuri or Lara dare to dream. Lean's focus is exceedingly narrow, but the scope of his vision is broad. The beauty of Freddie Young's sumptuous cinematography is found in the wilting of a flower, the endless snow of a harsh Russian winter, the war-torn landscapes Yuri and Lara are forced to endure, the cold iron of a military superpower, and the icy halls of an empty house frozen in time.
Zhivago's performances are unforgettable as well. Sharif has taken a surprising beating from critics since the film's release, but the soulful tremor in his voice, his heaven-cast glances, and the utter commitment he invests in Yuri's every expression and gesture marks his complete command of the screen. Christie never had to justify her work, and for good reason. Stealing entire scenes, if not the entire film, she readily invites her supporting castmates to her level and prevents Lara from being overshadowed by any of the men in her life. Rod Steiger bears his villainous teeth in an even more difficult role -- that of Komarovsky, a manipulative opportunist who viciously rapes Lara and then has the audacity to continue meddling in her affairs -- and doesn't flinch in the slightest when called upon to do the most insidious things. Chaplin delivers a standout performance as well. Understated yet arresting, she strikes a balance between Tonya's devotion to Yuri and fear of the unknown. And I'd be remiss if I didn't mention Guinness, Rita Tushingham, Klaus Kinski, and Gérard Tichy, all of whom keep Lean's lofty romanticism from getting the best of the director. Paired with Young's stunning cinematography, Maurice Jarre's memorable score, Phyllis Dalton's exquisite costuming, and Lean's steady hand, the cast inhabits the characters, and the characters, in turn, come to inhabit the imagination. Just don't mistake my affection and admiration for nostalgia. Before this week, I had never seen the film. (I wasn't even born until fifteen years after its theatrical debut.) That's right, dear readers, I'm a new convert, a fact that should speak volumes about Doctor Zhivago's lasting appeal.
Doctor Zhivago Blu-ray, Video Quality
The wonderful wizards of Warner have earned a reputation for investing a tremendous amount of time, money, and passion into meticulously restoring and rejuvenating the studio's most beloved catalog classics -- Gone with the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, Casablanca, North by Northwest, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Blade Runner are just a few of the dazzling high definition rebirths that spring to mind -- and the Blu-ray edition of Doctor Zhivago does very little to betray that reputation. Its 1080p/VC-1 transfer breathes new life into Lean's romantic masterpiece, now forty-five years old. The lavish spectacle of cinematographer Freddie Young's palette has been preserved, his vibrant red-star primaries have retained their power, skintones are both pleasant and flattering, and contrast is altogether impressive. Though black levels aren't always as deep as modern filmfans have come to expect, it rarely hinders the impact of the photography. Likewise, while detail isn't as sharp or consistent as it is in the studio's best presentations, I suspect such shortcomings trace back to Lean and Young's photography, the age and era of the film, and the condition of the original print. Nighttime sequences sometimes suffer from softness and a general lack of fine textures, and a few shots have possibly been processed a bit too vigorously. That being said, the film's daytime exteriors, well-lit interiors, and sweeping landscapes and locales look fantastic. In each case, fabric and facial textures are more natural and apparent, edges are crisp and clean, overall clarity is satisfying, and grain is intact. I also didn't detect any distracting digital anomalies or notice any unreasonable print blemishes. Significant ringing, artifacting, banding, and aliasing simply aren't a factor, and scratches and nicks are few and far between.
Does the Blu-ray edition outclass every previous release of the film? Without a doubt. There's no comparison really. Do I believe Warner has done Doctor Zhivago justice? Absolutely. Will everyone gush over its transfer? Sadly, no. It will never be the flawless, razor-sharp marvel some high definition enthusiasts demand every release be. But that shouldn't prevent anyone from enjoying this beautifully restored tour de force or discovering a host of new sights in one of Lean's finest.
Doctor Zhivago Blu-ray, Audio Quality
From the opening bars of Jarre's overture to the fanciful strings that swell the moment Yevgraf declares, "then it's a gift," Doctor Zhivago's DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround track showcases another admirable aspect of Warner Brothers' excellent restoration. Honestly, I expected LFE output and rear speaker activity to be a wash, but even when Jarre's stirring score isn't billowing across the soundfield, the thunder of horse hooves, the somber snarl of departing trains, the unrelenting winds of a snow-blown hellscape, and the clamor of hurried crowds emerge from every channel, immersing the listener in Lean's Russia. Low-end tones lend welcome weight and heft to many a scene, and acoustics and environmental ambience are surprisingly authentic. Yet the mix never drifts too far of course; it never turns its back on its sonic roots. Front-heavy as it may sometimes be, it expands the experience without resorting to any transparent trickery. While I would have adored sampling the best of both worlds (the inclusion of a high-quality 5.1 track and a faithful, ideally lossless presentation of Zhivago's original audio mix would have been most appreciated), the studio's remix pays homage to the filmmakers' intentions and effortlessly enhances the tone and tenor of the film. If I have any complaint, it's that dialogue -- though robust, healthy, and smartly prioritized on the whole -- is occasionally tinny, shallow even, and several sound effects are notably shrill. Still, considering the age of the film and the condition of the original elements, it's hardly a concern. Not every lossless mix that graces a catalog classic measures up, but Doctor Zhivago's DTS-HD Master Audio track complements Warner's video transfer nicely. Personally, I'm delighted with the results.
Doctor Zhivago Blu-ray, Special Features and Extras
I'm not exactly a fan of Digibooks, but it's difficult to deny that Doctor Zhivago's sturdy case is both handsome and classy. The Digibook itself houses two of the set's three discs in clear plastic shells (one on either side of Warner's gorgeous 40-page booklet) while a separate cardboard sleeve has been devoted to the bonus soundtrack sampler. As for the discs themselves, disc one, a roomy BD-50, includes the film, a commentary track, and a 40-minute documentary; disc two, a standard DVD, contains the remaining supplemental content; and disc three, an audio CD, offers eight selections from composer Maurice Jarre's rousing score.
Doctor Zhivago Blu-ray, Overall Score and Recommendation
Grand, evocative, sweeping, and unabashedly romantic, Doctor Zhivago has endured forty-five years of critical scrutiny and arrived in the 21st century largely unscathed. It isn't a perfect film by any means, nor is it an infallible classic, but it is a marvelous, utterly extravagant testament to an age and style of filmmaking that's tragically fading from modern memory. Thankfully, Warner Brothers is doing everything in its power to propel Zhivago into the future with a remarkable restoration and an equally remarkable Blu-ray release. Equipped with a strong video transfer, a dramatic DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround track, and a generous supplemental package, it deserves a coveted spot in many a cinephile's collection. I know it's found a place in mine.
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