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DOCTOR ZHIVAGO
Blu-ray Edition

Review by Gordon Justesen

Stars: Geraldine Chaplin, Julie Christie, Tom Courtenay, Alec Guinness, Siobhan McKenna, Ralph Richardson, Omar Sharif, Rod Steiger
Director: David Lean
Audio: DTS HD 5.1
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 2.40:1
Studio: Warner Bros.
Features: See Review
Length: 200 Minutes
Release Date: May 4, 2010

The personal life is dead in Russia. I can see why you might hate me.”

I hate everything you say, but not enough to kill you for it.”

Film ***

One of the many pleasures of the Blu-ray format is getting the chance to discover classic films for the very first time. The main reason being that seeing such films in high definition is literally like seeing them for the very first time. And since I was clearly unable to experience any of the big classic epics on the big screen, having the chance to see them on Blu-ray is unquestionably the closest I’ll ever get to it.

Doctor Zhivago is perhaps the greatest example of such a film. Here’s a release that has somehow slipped under my radar during my 31 years on this planet, but now that it’s finally arrived on Blu-ray I have jumped at the chance to sit down and watch it. Seeing any classic epic film on Blu-ray is a treat in and of itself, but seeing a classic epic from legendary director David Lean in the format is what you would call an experience you don’t want to miss.

I didn’t know until recently that of all the films he’s made, this is Lean’s least favorite film. Of course, when you’re following up something like Lawrence of Arabia (the mother of all cinematic epics), the end result is going to pale by comparison somehow. Doctor Zhivago, while certainly nowhere near the level of Lean’s greatest films, is one of the more fascinatingly unconventional and visually stunning movie epics I’ve ever seen.

This also marks a rare case for me, as I went into my first viewing of this hugely popular and worldwide acclaimed classic film completely blind. I had no idea what to expect from it, other than a grand scale love story. I must say that both the story and the way it unfolded truly surprised me, as did the notion that I never once got bored during the film’s 3 hour and 20 minute running time.

Adapted from the beloved novel by Boris Pasternak, Lean’s film tells of a romantic affair that unfolds during the course of both World War I and the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia. The events of the story are told in flashback by way of the title character’s brother, Yevgraf (Alec Guinness), who is a career soldier in the Soviet Army. He tells the story to a young girl who may be the result of the romance which anchors the film.

What unfolds is a complex tale that is indeed both beautiful and tragic. And it starts off on a mostly grim note, as we are introduced to the beautiful Lara (played by the ever-so beautiful Julie Christie), who is unwillingly connected to Komarovsky (Rod Steiger), a pure scoundrel if there ever was one. What makes him such a horrendous person is something I’ll leave for you to discover, but let’s just say that I was surprised to see such plot point exist in a film made in 1965.

Lara eventually rids herself of Komarovsky, and ends up falling in the arms of Pasha (Tom Courtenay). He is very much supportive of the revolution, which is what drew her to him in the first place. They are married, but we soon learn who her true love really is.

That man is the title character himself, Yuri Zhivago (Omar Sharif, in a career-defining performance). He is both a doctor and a poet. More than anything, he is a man of peace and doesn’t want to get involved with anything pertaining to any kind of revolution.

He also happens to be married. And as we can see, he is indeed to his wife, Tonya (Geraldine Chaplin), and their children. But Lara is Yuri’s one and only muse, inspiring his poetic side more than anyone ever has, thus making him torn between fidelity and following what his heart truly wants.

I expected to love this film right off the bat, based on all the acclaim I’ve heard over the years and the fact that everything I’d seen from David Lean was nothing but masterful. For me, though, Doctor Zhivago ends up being a film comprised of excellent segments rather than an altogether effective piece. Then again, this was my first viewing and this could be a case where repeat viewings are awfully rewarding, which makes sense given how much the viewer has to take in during a single viewing.

But it is a film that deserves to be seen by all who have not yet had the chance, especially film lovers. David Lean’s filmmaking remains one of a kind. You look at the set pieces, the extravagantly staged sequences, and powerful images (most notably that of a pair of glasses landing on the snow during a battle scene), and you then realize the difference between an epic film and one made by Lean.

Video ****

Whenever Warner is retooling a classic film for the Blu-ray format (North by Northwest, 2001), consider it an event! Like I said earlier, this was my first time seeing this 45 year old release and I can honestly say that experiencing it in HD is truly a moment I will fondly remember. But I’m sure those who have seen the film countless times will cherish this presentation even more. Everything from the colors to the image detail (which is pivotal in a David Lean film) to the extravagant set pieces and costumes are presented here in the absolute best form. I can’t stress it any further; if you are a classic film enthusiast and have Blu-ray access then this is one release that you should purchase right away. Zhivago will always be meant for the big screen, but this is as close as we will ever get to it!

Audio ***1/2

The DTS HD mix is quite astounding, to say the least. The first thing that must be made mention of is the classic score by Maurice Jarre. Again, this was my first time hearing this piece of film music, but the incredible sound presentation helped in making sure that “Lara’s Theme” would remain embedded in my brain both during and after the film. Again, those who have seen the film numerous times are likely to be blown away by the terrific remastered sound. It definitely plays a pivotal role in making the film feel like an epic.

Features ****

Warner has incorporated a glorious booklet package for this two disc Blu-ray release. Disc One includes all of the new extras for this release. In addition to a commentary track by Omar Sharif and Sandra Lean, we get a new commemorative two part retrospective documentary titled “Doctor Zhivago: A Celebration”, which includes interviews with numerous filmmakers who show a great deal of love for this film and tell why it’s such an inspiration.

Disc Two includes all of the extras from the previous DVD release, including the hour-long documentary, “Doctor Zhivago: The Making Of A Russian Epic”, as well as a lengthy gallery of vintage featurettes, including “Zhivago: Behind the Camera with David Lean”, “David Lean’s Film of Doctor Zhivago”, “Moscow in Madrid”, “Pasternak”, New York Press Interviews with Julie Christie and Omar Sharif, Geraldine Chaplin’s Screen Test, “This is Julie Christie”, “This is Geraldine Chaplin”, “This is Omar Sharif” and “Chaplin in New York”. Lastly, we have the Original Theatrical Trailer.

Also included is a bonus CD soundtrack sampler.

Summary:

Though it may take another viewing or so for me to appreciate it the way so many have since its initial release, I can certainly vouch that Doctor Zhivago is a truly epic love story as only David Lean could bring to cinematic life. On Blu-ray, it is a most astonishing experience in every way imaginable. Those who love the film owe it to themselves to add this one to their Blu-ray collection on account of the presentation alone.

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