Doctor Zhivago (Blu-ray)

January 28, 2012 9 Min Read

Review by: Matt Brighton

Plot: What’s it about?

When it comes to movies of epic proportion, there’s only a few Director’s that you can (or could) turn to. Stephen Spielberg certainly comes to mind, as does James Cameron. But the older movies had a more grand scale. Films like Ben-Hur, The Godfather and Lawrence of Arabia. The latter of the titles belongs to one David Lean. We might say that 2001 is the year of David Lean on DVD. Three of his epic movies have come out in 2-Disc Special Editions. The Bridge Over the River Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia and the third jewel in his crown, Doctor Zhivago. Ranked as #5, #13 and #39 on the AFI list of the 100 Best Movies of all time (not too shabby). While Alec Guiness is present in all three, it’s not felt as much here. Still, I feel that Doctor Zhivago is by far the slowest-moving of the three. Clocking in at just over three hours, you’ll feel every minute of it as well! It’s no secret that the movie was based on Boris Pasternak’s best-selling novel from 1958. Let’s dive right in and see what it’s all about, shall we?

Doctor Zhivago follows the characters through more than 50 years. While starting out in the dreds of Russia, through the disarray and devistation of World War I, then into the chaos that was the Bolshevik Revolution. This leads into the crackdown’s of the 1920’s and 1930’s. The story is told in flashback form (much like ‘Titanic’) as an old General (Alec Guiness) questions a woman (Rita Tushingham) from a group of workers. His goal is to solve an old family mystery which is this…”What happened to his niece after the death of his brother, a doctor-poet by the name of Zhivago?” The war and revolution bring Lara (Julie Christie) and Zhivago (Omar Sharif) together many times, but years to tear them apart. When a lawyer, Komarovsky (Rod Steiger), seduces (seduces is a mild way of putting it) Lara only to tear her and Zhivago apart. Years later, Yuri and Tonya are married and have a son. In the meantime, Lara has also been wed to a revolutionary by the name of Pasha (Tom Courtenay).

Doctor Zhivago is a movie where there’s either a lot of praise and an lot of despise. Doing some research for this review (and I’ll be the first to admit…it’s not good), I noticed a lot of varying opinions of the movie. If the AFI says it’s the #39 best movie ever made, does that necessarily make it so? Of course not…it’s followed by North by Northwest which is my favorite Hitchcock movie and one of my favorite movies of all time. I’ll say that Doctor Zhivago ranks up there with the best of them when it comes to cinematography (he was known for being very meticulous and as a former accountant, he certainly fit the bill) right up there with The Sound of Music and Lawrence of Arabia (another of his works). But the plot of Doctor Zhivago drags on and on like that of a soap opera. And that’s what I can most likely compare it to…a soap opera. Had this movie been about an hour shorter, it would have been that much better. The closeup shots are more like that of Days of Our Lives than an epic that spans over fifty years. I’m not saying that this is a bad movie, far from it. I’m not saying that it doesn’t deserve a place in the Top 100 movies of all time, I think it does. But I don’t think it lives up to the hype and I don’t think it stands the test of time that well. Then again, I’m just a humble reviewer of DVD’s…but I’d like to think that my opinion counts for something. If you’re a fan of the movie, then this is highly recommended of course. If you’ve never seen it, then by all means–give it a try.

Video: How does it look?

“Doctor Zhivago” was given the royal treatment when it hit standard DVD about a decade ago and there wasn’t much room for improvement in regards to how it looked on screen. Or so I thought. For as good as the standard DVD looked, this Blu-ray brings the film to a higher level. The crisp, stark blue of the skies contrast against the white of the snow, the milky white of Julie Christie’s skin and everything in between simply look amazing. Considering this film is nearing its fiftieth birthday, I’ve seen only a few that look this great. The 2.35:1 HD VC-1 transfer sets the standard high for two of Lean’s other films: “The Bridge on the River Kwai” and “Lawrence of Arabia” (both of which are Sony titles, not Warner like this one). Well the gauntlet has been thrown down and as of right now “Doctor Zhivago” exceeded my expectations on Blu-ray.

Audio: How does it sound?

The one thing that stands out from “Doctor Zhivago” is the score and, of course, “Lara’s Theme”. There’s even a third disc in this set (a CD) dedicated to Maurice Jarre’s score. Yes, there are a few instances in which the DTS HD Master Audio soundtrack does shine, but by and large this film is dialogue-driven. And, add to this the fact the sheer age of the film and it’s not like we’re expecting something of an epic scale in terms of a soundtrack. For what its supposed to do, “Doctor Zhivago” soars, but can’t hold a candle to the modern-day soundtracks that we’ve been so accustomed to.

Supplements: What are the extras?

This is essentially a rehash of the previous two-disc standard DVD from a few years back but we do get one supplement that’s new to this disc. It’s a two part retrospective documentary with some interviews with the cast and crew as they reflect back on the film, its history and the making of it. The first disc doesn’t have much on it besides the movie and a rather unspecific commentary by Omar Sharif, Rod Steiger and Mrs. David Lean (Sandra). The track is full of information, but coming from the actors, it just doesn’t have the same effect as it would from the director. Sharif shot to stardom after his roles here and in Lawrence of Arabia, but his lack of enthusiasim here is disappointing. He does give a very warm new (new being about seven years old) introduction to the movie, though. The really great documentary “The Making of Doctor Zhavigo” is a 30 minute piece that is really well done. Unlike modern documentaries, this has interviews with the cast and crew (which new ones have too) but it’s interspliced with the movie itself. It really makes you excited about the movie and wants to make you watch it. Unfortunately for me, that excitement wore off after the first hour! There are 10 “vintage” documentaries, but I’ll let you find those out for yourself. They do have some good parts in them, though like an interview with Julie Christie in 1965 as with Omar Sherif and Rod Steiger. It shows how popular the movie was (and is) and all are very interesting to watch. The audio only soundtrack has been replaced by a third disc which houses the score of the film. Also included is the theatrical trailer.

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