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It might seem cheeky of Masterpiece
Theatre to newly adapt Boris Pasternaks monumental novel about the 1917 Russian
Revolution so close on the heels of a sumptuous DVD
restoration of David Leans blockbuster movie. For some, Omar Sharif and Julie
Christie embody Doctor Zhivagos star-crossed lovers as memorably as Clark
Gable and Vivien Leigh in Gone
With the Wind. But Leans 1965 film has always had detractors, and
justifiably so. The grandeur that the director achieved a few years before with Lawrence
of Arabia gave way in Doctor Zhivago to mawkishness. Worse,
Pasternaks book was whittled down to its most numbingly banal components. Veteran Masterpiece
Theatre screenwriter Andrew Davies clearly relished the opportunity to bring a fresh
approach to the material. PBS viewers who tune in with only the mildest curiosity may find
their low expectations overturned. Evocatively filmed in the Czech Republic (versus
Leans uninspired use of Spain and Canada), this lavish two-part four-hour production
succeeds in giving the earlier film a serious run for its money.
The universality of Pasternaks noveland its implicit rebuke of Communismcan be discerned in the books reverence for literary self-expression and the sanctity of individual conscience. The authors poet-doctor surrogate, Yury Zhivago, perceives life as a luminous pantheistic force that is constantly renewing and remaking and changing and transfiguring. Although Zhivago is sympathetic to the underlying spirit of the revolution, he despairs that it has cost such a sea of blood that Im not sure that the end justifies the means. Published to stunning worldwide success beginning in 1957, the novel was an embarrassment to Soviet authorities. Its publication was blocked in the USSR for thirty years until glasnost finally cleared the air. Pasternak felt compelled to turn down the Nobel Prize for Literature when it was announced in 1958 that hed won. He never saw the Prize money or the substantial royalties that his novel accrued in the West. A state-sponsored campaign of vilification contributed to his declining health. He died in Russia at the age of seventy in 1960.
While this Masterpiece Theatre offering boasts a first-rate script and energetic direction (by Giacomo Campiotti), the casting is less consistent. Hans Matheson (Mists of Avalon) brings little more than conventional leading-man earnestness to the title role of Zhivago. Rising young actress Keira Knightley (Bend it Like Beckham, Pirates of the Caribbean) is a cream-complexioned vision of beauty as Zhivagos adulterous lover Lara, but connecting with her characters deeper layers of strength and anguish ultimately seems beyond her range. Knightley does her best work in the dramas first half, depicting Laras descent into sexual exploitation at the hands of the malevolent lawyer Victor Komarovsky, played by Sam Neill (Jurassic Park, The Piano). Rod Steiger was a powerhouse of scene-stealing menace in the role of Komarovsky for David Lean. Neill, a skilled but far from menacing actor, wisely opts for a different interpretation that mingles foppish arrogance with a hint of polymorphous perversity. Its a witty scene-stealing performance in its own fashionsort of John Malkovich-Liteand it provides Neill with a gleeful holiday from the plodding milquetoasts hes often saddled with playing.
The storys tension is built around the fateful manner in which Zhivago and Lara, although married to others, find themselves repeatedly thrown together in the unlikeliest of highly charged circumstances. Whether its the attempted suicide of Laras mother (Maryam dAbo), or Laras attempted murder of Komarovsky, or tending the wounded on a WWI battlefield, or in an isolated village hospital far from Revolutionary Moscow, Zhivago invariably arrives on site as an attending physician and conveniently stumbles upon Lara nearby. Andrew Daviess script thankfully goes further in bringing out the novels larger theme of human hearts in conflict with political expediency. As in Pasternak, the romance isnt always center stage; well-drawn subsidiary characters find their way to the fore. Memorable supporting roles include Laras husband Pasha (Kris Marshall), who convincingly progresses from naive idealist to treacherous revolutionary to disillusioned lost soul. Also making a strong impression is actor Hugh Bonneville (familiar from Masterpiece Theatre roles in Daniel Deronda and Madame Bovary) in a harrowing train ride flashback as Zhivagos father, a wealthy industrialist ruined through his association with the ubiquitous Komarovsky.
Pasternaks use of coincidence and recurrenceadmittedly ham-fisted at timesis intended less for melodramatic effect than as a kind of mystical alignment of historical and divine forces. (Novelist and Russian emigre Vladimir Nabokov dismissed Pasternaks book as penny-awful pulp fiction. Critic Edmund Wilson, whod taken to feuding with Nabokov on the subject of Russian literature, argued at length for Doctor Zhivagos brilliance and called it one of the great events in mans literary and moral history.) Zhivago, in opposition to Marx, proclaims life is never a material, a substance to be molded. Not surprisingly, this is a love story that at times assumes the solemnity of a religious allegory, which in this production is beautifully evoked when Zhivago glances out a cafe window and first sets eyes on Lara. With their faces superimposed over one another in the panes reflection, they appear momentarily like stained-glass saints fused in eternal longing.