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Eastern Promise - Television Review

Doctor Zhivago

Sunday Herald, Glasgow,

November 24, 2002

Abstract:
Boris Pasternak himself is only semi-famous as the answer to a Trivial Pursuit question these days, since the movie has long superimposed itself over the book - David Lean's 1965 textbook epic, a huge snowglobe filled with trapped, lasting images of black choo- choo trains smoking through the white winter, and close-ups of Julie Christie's sorrowful blue eyes. It's a legend - very pretty, very long, blah blah blah - but it's also a big fat boring nothing. Lead lovers Christie and Omar Sharif are as static as the plastic figures on a wedding cake, with a quaking mountain of Russian history and politics mostly buried under the icing.

DR ZHIVAGO is one of those books with a life story outside the pages. Author Boris Pasternak was a rogue romantic individualist unlucky enough to be working in post-revolutionary Russia, where a person alone was worth zero, and artists not simpatico with Stalin's vision of the class struggle could be exiled to spend forever freezing in a gulag, or put up against the wall by the secret police.

He wrote his book anyway - a novel about the harried private destinies of people trying to insulate themselves from history - and good for him. Banned in Russia until 1989 (though enough copies were smuggled and printed in secret for it to win the Nobel Prize for Literature almost straight away), Dr Zhivago has outlived the Soviet Union, and is better loved and better remembered.

But Pasternak himself is only semi-famous as the answer to a Trivial Pursuit question these days, since the movie has long superimposed itself over the book - David Lean's 1965 textbook epic, a huge snowglobe filled with trapped, lasting images of black choo- choo trains smoking through the white winter, and close-ups of Julie Christie's sorrowful blue eyes. It's a legend - very pretty, very long, blah blah blah - but it's also a big fat boring nothing. Lead lovers Christie and Omar Sharif are as static as the plastic figures on a wedding cake, with a quaking mountain of Russian history and politics mostly buried under the icing.

ITV's new version is a conservative commercial venture compared to Pasternak's own neck-risking. For all the money that's been spent ((pounds) 7 million) this is both a reworking of a classic novel and a remake of a classic movie, making a safe play for a big audience. Andrew Davies has been bought in to do the script, just like he always is. This man has already written the TV adaptations of Pride and Prejudice, Middlemarch, Moll Flanders, Othello, Tipping The Velvet, and current rival BBC production of Daniel Deronda.

He's as prolific as Shakespeare, or Prince was in the Eighties, but without the genius. The job here is to make these characters - their own troubles flooded by the troubles of a country - live and breathe, and give some deeper emotional focus to the backdrops.

The result is a pretty good mix of personal friction and period elegance, carrying the cast through desperate inner conflicts, doomed love, and revolutionary carnage with some real storytelling grace. Scottish actor Hans Matheson yearns sympathetically in the title role, "a doctor for others, a poet for himself", but Zhivago still seems like the kind of guy who could only exist in a novel - noble, passive, smacked around by huge events without ever really losing heart.

And as with Lean's movie, the politics shift around in the margins, with not enough exchange between private and public histories.

Fine young Keira Knightly though, makes the whole thing worthwhile as Lara, the self-conscious object of love and lust for the doctor and his weak, grasping rivals. Julie Christie was just a foxy enigma in the role, but Knightly rises way above all the stagey, literary dialogue to create something like a real human at the heart of a prettified retro-epic - fierce, confused, vain, determined, trying very hard to be good.

Back to Doctor Zhivago page.