You’d think that a movie based on one of Thomas Hardy’s cheerier novels, starring Julie Christie and Alan Bates in their prime, with Peter Finch and a surprisingly sexy Terrence Stamp, and directed by John Schlesinger, would be pretty great, but you’d be wrong.
I saw it years ago, and remember being bored, but decided to give it a second chance the other night. Halfway through the three-hour epic, I found myself nodding off, so it took me two nights to finish the thing. I’m just glad that it’s been thirty years since I read Far From the Madding Crowd—which I loved—so I don’t feel betrayed on that score. I’ll probably reread the novel now, to get the film out of my head.
As Roger Ebert said in his review at the time, “The spacious landscape of Dorset is photographed in stunning beauty, and we get panoramas of hillsides with heroic characters running up and down them.” That’s about it, I’m afraid. Excellent cinematography by Nicolas Roeg and a nice soundtrack with plenty of English folksongs.
Here’s Stamp’s character, mourning his dead lover:
Omar Sharif plays a Russian and Doctor Zhivago was shot mostly in Spain by a British director, produced by an Italian. “Lara’s Theme,” the schmaltzy leitmotif that evokes the Julie Christie character, can still be heard in elevators today. Aspects of this picture seem dated, but there’s an awful lot to like, especially in these troubled times.
Let’s start with an early scene: it is 1912 and a group of workers are demonstrating in the streets of Moscow, led by the idealistic Pasha Antipov, a young social democrat. An equally young and idealistic Yuri Zhivago watches the scene from a balcony, and witnesses the violence as the workers are mowed down by Cossaks on horseback. Pasha is radicalized by the event and becomes a revolutionary, lashing out against the regime responsible for such brutality, but growing more ruthless as the story progresses.
Yuri turns away, turns inward. Each new upheaval in Russia, each act of violence, reaffirms his determination to live, to love, and to create. Sharif registers pain in those soulful brown eyes. Unlike Pasha or the commander of the partisan unit that conscripts him later in the picture, his character never loses his humanity, never sacrifices his concern for individuals, their lives, their hopes, their needs in the name of “justice” or some other abstract good.
And so we come to another key scene. Yuri and Lara have taken refuge in the frozen dacha that belonged to Yuri’s wife’s family. In the early morning, Yuri sits at his desk writing poems. Wolves howl at the edge of the property, but inside the frost-starred window, we see the warm glow of Yuri’s candle. A mere moment of safety, of peace; we know it cannot last. But the beauty of that moment sustains us. May we all find hope in the glow of Yuri’s humanity.