Andrew Davies' initial reaction to the notion of remaking Doctor Zhivago probably echoes that of many fans of David Lean's 1965 epic. "I thought it was an outrageous idea, because the previous film was really great," said Davies, who wound up having a change of heart and writing the script for the two-part Masterpiece Theatre production, which starts Sunday night.
Davies' adaptations for PBS's showpiece franchise include Othello, Wives and Daughters, Daniel Deronda and Moll Flanders.
His reservations about Zhivago dissipated when he reread Boris Pasternak's novel, set during the Russian Revolution. "I found there was lots in the book that wasn't in the film that was open to a new interpretation," he said.
The new edition might not be your father's Doctor Zhivago, but it is a stunning success, a tender romance played against a historical backdrop of violence and cruelty. Davies' screenplay is involving, the cinematography is captivating, the costuming and set designs evoke a sense of time and place, and the top-of-the-marquee performances are world class.
The production also was lucky to cast Keira Knightley as Lara, the hauntingly beautiful young woman who mesmerizes three disparate men, changing the courses of their lives. Having signed on to re-create the role originated by Julie Christie, she has, in the interim, become a hot property off summer triumphs in Pirates of the Caribbean and Bend It Like Beckham.
The 18-year-old Knightley handles with aplomb the challenge of playing Lara both as a teenager and as a woman in her 30s.
Lara is 16 when she first enchants Yury Zhivago, a medical student and poet. Yury sees Lara only through the window of a restaurant, but this is enough to imprison his emotions for life. Yury is already involved in another unconventional relationship with his cousin Tonya, who was raised as his sister and will become his wife. She will never be the true love of his life, however, because of Lara.
Hans Matheson's portrayal deftly peels away the layers of the complex Doctor Zhivago, who matures before the audience's eyes.
The beguiling Lara also is on her way into a loveless marriage. Her mother, a dressmaker, is accommodating the voracious sexual appetite of the lecherous Victor Komarovsky, a prosperous entrepreneur who owns the shop where she works. In a vile bid to curry additional favor, Lara's mother practically pimps her daughter to Victor.
Victor is a self-assured, treacherous chameleon, able to move successfully between the belligerent factions in the Bolshevik uprising. But, like Yury, he behaves like a foolish adolescent in the sphere of Lara. Sam Neill captures the essence of the cocky Victor, playing him with a perpetual smirk even in moments when the vulnerability he tries to hide comes through.