Acorn Media // 2002 // 225 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Gordon Sullivan // December 4th, 2012
Boris Pasternak's tale of love, betrayal and revolution.
I haven't done an exhaustive genealogy or anything, but Keira Knightley seems to be a very British woman. With an English father and a mother of Scottish and Welsh extraction, I can think of no reason why she's so popular as a choice to star in adaptations of famous Russian novels (maybe it's the cheekbones?). Her English costume dramas (like Pride and Prejudice) make sense, but Anna Karenina and Doctor Zhivago make a bit less sense, though it is likely because of the new Anna Karenina that Zhivago is receiving a two-disc release. Though it can't hope to compare to David Lean's famous feature from 1965, this adaptation has a solid cast and an interesting approach to a difficult novel.
Though it's called Doctor Zhivago, the story is really about three men: the wealthy businessman Victor Komarofsky (Sam Neill, Jurassic Park), the student-turned-revolutionary Pasha (Kris Marshall, Death at a Funeral), and the poet-doctor Yuri Zhivago (Hans Matheson, Sherlock Holmes). All of their lives intersect with the lovely Lara (Keira Knightley, Bend it Like Beckham) as Russia goes from the aftermath of the October Revolution to World War II.
If anyone had asked me to remake Doctor Zhivago in the early 2000s, I would have refused. David Lean's spectacular film would be one reason, but for me the primary motivation would be to instead make a film about Boris Pasternak and the publication of the novel Doctor Zhivago. Though it was refused publication in the USSR, the novel was published to much acclaim in Italy. Doctor Zhivago was largely responsible for Pasternak's being awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, a prize he was forced to refuse by the state. Of course, nobody asked me.
Instead, we get a relatively faithful miniseries adaptation of Pasternak's novel, with a pair of up-and-coming actors (Knightley and Matheson) in the lead roles. Director Giacomo Campiotti wisely decides not to tread too far into David Lean's territory with his adaptation. Lean's film is known for its lushly romantic widescreen love triangle. The book, however, is not just about a love triangle (though that's a pretty big component); it's also about the revolutions that lead to the USSR and WWII. Campiotti's spends a bit more time on those aspects. More importantly, rather than focusing on the beauty of love and the Russian countryside, this Doctor Zhivago goes for a darker, grittier take on the material.
Through the use of transitions, Doctor Zhivago includes newsreel footage from the period surrounding the 1917 revolution. Though I don't think they make the film more "authentic," they do give the film a much-needed shot in the arm, grounding the film's love story in historical events that feel more contemporary than the sweeping romance of Lean's film.
This two-disc set offers each of the show's two parts on its own disc, generously spreading out the 225 minutes. That leaves plenty of room for the 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer to breath. The whole show looks like a contemporary television miniseries. That means that colors are bright and well-saturated, and well-lit scenes are sharp. Darker scenes, however, are bit softer than a more expanded budget might have allowed, though black levels are at least consistent. The Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo track is similarly workable without being exceptional. Dialogue is clean and clear, but nothing particularly stands out. The inclusion of subtitles is a nice plus for a literary adaptation.
The extras consist almost entirely of 70 minutes of cast and crew interviews. Disc One gets the actors, with Knightley, Matheson, Neill, and Kris Marshall appearing to discuss the production, while the second disc gets Campiotti, writer Andrew Davies, producer Anne Pivcevic, and exec producer Andy Harries who give a more thorough account of how the miniseries came to be. There is also a photo gallery, filmographies, and a text biography of Pasternak. An insert in the set includes a glossary of characters for those having trouble following all the Russian names.
Of course, the very existence of Doctor Zhivago is going to annoy some viewers. The fact that anyone would dare to make another adaptation of the book after David Lean's film will undoubtedly leave some viewers with a sour taste. That a miniseries -- ostensibly an expanded format for a lengthy narrative -- is actually only a half an hour longer than Lean's film might strike some as absurd. Moreover, that final half our is the flabbiest part of the film, and some judicious trimming might have improved the film and made the overall running time even less than Lean's opus.
Objections may also easily be raised by fans of Pasternak's book. Russian novels are notoriously difficult to translate into English, let alone onto film, and some people will no doubt reject even an adaptation as relatively faithful as this one. Still more people will object that this Doctor Zhivago goes too far in the other direction from Lean's film. Whereas Lean downplayed the more revolutionary aspects to highlight the love triangle, this Doctor Zhivago effectively highlights the Revolution and its effects, but the love stories are less convincing. Though I think the actors are up to snuff individually, there doesn't seem to be enough time for sufficient chemistry to be built up, leaving the film without the balance that this slightly grittier approach to the material might have given viewers.
This 2002 miniseries adaptation of Doctor Zhivago will no doubt whet appetites for Keira Knightley's other Russian novel adaptation, which is probably the reason this previously available two-disc set is being released ten years after the miniseries originally aired in the U.S. and U.K. It's worth watching for fans of historical dramas and adaptations. It might also see some use for those who want to watch the miniseries rather than push through the novel. However, despite the informative extras, the feature itself doesn't always work, leaving this one as a rental recommendation only outside of fans who caught it in broadcast. Those who already own the previous set have no reason to upgrade.
Though it's hardly essential, this Doctor Zhivago is not guilty.
Review content copyright © 2012 Gordon Sullivan; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2016 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Acorn Media
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 225 Minutes
Release Year: 2002
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Photo Gallery