Doctor Zhivago at IMDb
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Sweep Me Away "- Television Review
Publication: Sunday Telegraph London England;
Author: Preston John
There's a passage in Kingsley Amis's Lucky Jim in which Jim Dixon, greatly to his surprise, is offered a job. "It's not that you've got the qualifications for this or any other work," his prospective employer tells him. "You haven't got the disqualifications, though, and that's much rarer."
My disqualifications for reviewing Dr Zhivago (last Sunday, ITV), are pretty considerable. Not only have I never read the book, but I have only hazy memories of the David Lean film - a smudge of Julie Christie's frosted pink lipstick hovering over my adolescence and, as Peter Cook might have said, bloody balalaikas everywhere.
When Zhivago was first mooted as a project, there was a lot of dark muttering about what a rotten idea it was and how it could never match up to the original version. Yet never once in the first episode - there are two more - did I find myself thinking, "why did they bother?" Its first and most self-evident virtue was that it looked more like a movie than a traditional telly drama. There was a real richness of texture here and none - or comparatively little - of that plonky literalness where everything is repeated 12 times for the benefit of slowcoaches at the back.
This version treated its audience as intelligent and assumed they had the ability to follow a story that unfolded visually rather than verbally. It began with young Yuri Zhivago finding his father's body beside a railway track. Nothing was said - it didn't need to be. Nor was the body shown - or only its feet were. Everything was played on the child's wonderfully expressive face: his inquisitiveness, his disbelief, his dawning awareness . . .
There was a wealth of other cleverly wrought, yet essentially simple touches. It was only when people opened their mouths that the trouble started. Although there wasn't a great deal of dialogue, what there was sat on people's tongues like iron lozenges. Presumably Andrew Davies had intended to give his lines some contemporary zip. What he actually produced, though, was a lumpy and lazy assemblage of cliches: "Suit yourself - they hang on your every word - you don't care tuppence for me."
The effect was to rob the drama of much of its grandeur and to heighten the - already very high - sense of contrivance of a storyline that pushes its characters through a succession of implausible hoops with shameless abandon and a brimming sense of self-importance.
As for the performances - a very mixed bag. Sam Neill's Komarovsky is fairly creepy, but has about as much subtlety to him as a two-handed Captain Hook. However, Hans Matheson is terrific as the grown-up Yuri Zhivago - intense, playful, assured and able to convey a very effective sense of trouble brewing behind his lowering brow. As his cousin Tonya, Alexandra Maria Lara manages to invest a thankless part with a great deal of warmth and poignancy.
Which brings us to the biggest problem of all: Lara. On the evidence of episode one, Keira Knightley has neither the range nor the depth for the part. She's a bit drippy, a bit whiney, "a bit Parsons Green" - as a friend of mine put it - and it's hard to see what would possess Yuri to leave the infinitely more seductive Tonya for her.
But thanks in large part to Giacomo Campiotti's bravura direction, these flaws were far less obtrusive than they might have been. Melodrama it might be - Gone with the Wind with snow - but it's rumblingly compulsive melodrama none the less. Certainly, it swept me up and carried me along for an hour and a half, before setting me down - a little breathless, I fear, yet generally satisfied.
COPYRIGHT 2002 Sunday Telegraph
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