Tag: Julie Christie

Doctor Zhivago (1965)

Julie Christie and Omar Sharif are star cross’d lovers in Lean’s epic but flawed Doctor Zhivago

Director: David Lean

Cast: Omar Sharif (Dr Yuri Zhivago), Julie Christie (Lara Antipova), Geraldine Chaplin (Tonya Gromeko), Rod Steiger (Victor Komarovsky), Alec Guinness (Lt General Yevgraf Zhivago), Tom Courtenay (Pasha Antipov/Strelnikov), Siobhan McKenna (Anna Gromeko), Ralph Richardson (Alexander Gromeko), Rita Tushingham (The Girl), Bernard Kay (Bolshevik), Klaus Kinski (Amoursky), Noel Willman (Razin), Geoffrey Keen (Professor Kurt), Jack MacGowan (Petya)

Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago is one of the seminal 20th century novels. Smuggled out of the USSR after being refused publication, it became an international sensation and led directly to Pasternak winning the Nobel Prize (although the USSR insisted he turn it down). A film was only a matter of time – and who else would you call but David Lean, master of the pictorial epic, to bring the novel about the Russian Revolution to the screen. Lean – with his masterful Dickensian adaptations – was perfect in many ways but Doctor Zhivago, for me, is the least satisfying of his ‘Great Films’. It’s strangely empty and sentimental, lacking some of the novel’s strengths zeroing in on its weaknesses.

Yuri Zhivago (Omar Sharif) is training to be a Doctor in the years before the outbreak of the First World War. Married to Tonya (Geraldine Chaplin), the daughter of his father’s old friend Gromeko (Ralph Richardson), Yuri is part scientist, part poetic free-thinker. Events throw him together with Lara (Julie Christie), a young woman whose fiancé Pasha (Tom Courtenay) has ties to the revolutionaries, while she is trapped in an abusive relationship with the amoral Komarovsky (Rod Steiger). But are all these troubles worth a hill of beans in a country about to tear itself apart?

There are many things you can’t argue with in Lean’s film. It is of course unfailingly beautiful. Ironically filmed in Fascist Spain, it’s gorgeously lensed with a luscious romanticism by Frederick Young (who won his second Oscar for a Lean film). It’s not just pictorial beauty either: Young frequently makes wonderful uses of splashes of Monet red to dapple the frame. From poppies in a field to the ubiquitous communist imagery on uniforms and walls. There are some wonderfully cool blues employed for the snow, while slashes of light pass across eyes with a gorgeous lyricism.

Romance is the name of the game, with everything working overtime to stress the star cross’d lovers plot. Maurice Jarre’s score – in particular its balalaika inspired Lara’s Theme – mixes Russian folk inspirations with an immortal sense of longing. It plays over a film that, while very long, often feels well-paced, even if (just as the novel) its episodic and at times rambling. Lean’s direction of epic events revolving around personal loves and tragedies is still exquisite in its balance between the grand and intimate. The film is wonderfully edited and a fabulous example of long-form storytelling.

So, what’s wrong with Doctor Zhivago? In a film with so much to admire, is it possible Lean and co spent years working on something only to bring the word but not the spirit to the screen? The key problems come round to Zhivago himself. This is man defined by his poetic soul. His poetry becomes a sensation after his death. His balalaika is a constant companion, and his playing of it an inherited gift (which even has major plot implications). Inexplicably, the film has not a single word of poetry in it (when it had Pasternak’s entire back catalogue to work with) and Zhivago never so much as strums the strings of his balalaika. It’s like filming Hamlet and then making him a mute.

The problem is, removing the character’s hinterland makes him a rather empty character. Zhivago is a liberal reformer, in sympathy with the revolution but not it’s methods. This should be at the heart of understanding his character, but like his poetry the film has no time for it. Instead, Zhivago is boiled down into a romantic figure, nothing more. He has no inner life at all, a blank canvas rather than an enigma.

Suddenly those long lingering shots of Sharif’s puppy-dog eyes end up carrying no real meaning. They aren’t the windows to his soul, only a big watery hole with not much at the bottom. Sharif is awkwardly miscast – and lacks the dramatic chops O’Toole bought to Lawrence – but it’s not completely his fault. His character has had his depth removed. When we see him struggling at the front, trapped on a long train ride to Siberia or forced to work with partisans, he’s not a man who seems to be considering anything, but just buffeted by fortune, neither deep or thoughtful enough to reflect on the world around him. That’s not really Pasternak’s intention.

Instead, the film boils the novel down to his plot-basics and, in doing so, removes the heart of what got the book banned in the first place. Lean misunderstood the future of Soviet Russia so much, he even chose to end the film with a romantic rainbow at the foot of a waterfall. The horrors of the civil war and the revolution are largely there briefly: a gang of deserting soldiers unceremoniously frag their officers and Zhivago frequently stares sadly at villages burned out by Whites or Reds (or both). But the film is more of a romance where events (rather than politically and social inevitability) gets in the way of the lovers – like Gone with the Revolution.

By removing the more complex elements – and the poetic language of Pasternak – you instead have the rather soapy plotline (with its contrivances and coincidences) left over. Again, it’s Hamlet taking only the events and none of the intellect or language. (And Pasternak’s novel didn’t compare with Hamlet in the first place.) Both Zhivago and Lara are shot as soft-focus lovers, with Julie Christie styled like a perfectly made-up slice of 60s glamour. It’s a grand scale, but strangely empty romance, because both characters remain unexplored and unknowable – in the end it’s hard to care for them as much as we are meant to do. For all the epic scale, small moments – such as an aging couple sharing a cuddle late at night on a train floor – carry more impact. How did the director of Brief Encounter – a romance that speaks to the ages for its empathy – produce such an epic, but empty, posture filled romance as this?

Julie Christie does fare better than Sharif – she’s a better actor, and her character has a bit more fire and depth to her. But she’s not in the picture enough, and Lean quietly undersells the terrible trauma of her eventual fate. Ironically, the smaller roles are on surer ground. Geraldine Chaplin is rather affecting as Zhivago’s wife, a dutiful and caring woman who her husband loves but is not besotted with. Ralph Richardson is witty and moving in a tailor-made role as her eccentric father. Tom Courtenay landed the films only acting Oscar nomination as the reserved and conflicted Pasha. Rod Steiger is very good as the mass of greed, selfishness and barely acknowledged shame as Komarovsky. Alec Guinness is bizarrely miscast as Sharif’s younger brother (!) but handles some of the film’s duller scenes well (Lean’s decision to have him never speak on screen except in the film’s framing device works very well).

There is a lot of good stuff in Zhivago, but this is a neutered and even slightly shallow film, that’s far more about selling a romance than it is telling a true adaptation of the themes of the novel. In Lawrence, Lean showed us multiple aspects of a conflicted personality to leave us in doubt about who he really was. In Zhivago, he just presents a rather empty person and seems unsure if he wants to use to ask who he is. The film concentrates on making the romance sweeping and easily digestible. What it doesn’t make us do is really care for them as people.

Heat and Dust (1983)

Shashi Kapoor and Greta Scacchi in a love across the divide in Heat and Dust

Director: James Ivory

Cast: Julie Christie (Anne), Greta Scacchi (Olivia Rivers), Shashi Kapoor (The Nawab), Christopher Cazenove (Douglas Rivers), Nickolas Grace (Harry Hamilton-Paul), Zakir Hussain (Inder Lal), Julian Glover (Crawford), Susan Fleetwood (Mrs Crawford), Patrick Godfrey (Dr Saunders), Jennifer Kendal (Mrs Saunders), Charles McCaughan (Chid), Madhur Jaffrey (Begum Mussarat Jahan), Barry Foster (Major Minnies)

Adapted by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala from her Booker-prize winning novel, Ivory-Merchant’s production of Heat and Dust is much like the source: precise, admirable and both faintly enigmatic and intriguingly slight. In 1982 Anne (Julie Christie) travels to India to discover more about the life of her great-aunt Olivia (Greta Scacchi). In 1923, Olivia lived in Satipur as wife to local official Douglas Rivers (Christopher Cazenove). The Nawab (Shashi Kapoor) is the local Indian prince, a charismatic man who may or may not be in league with local bandits. Enthralled by India, bored by British India but deeply in love with Douglas, Olivia still finds herself drawn to the Nawab. Scandal is round the corner.

Heat and Dust is a delicate, well-mounted adaptation, but it never quite engages as much as it should. Perhaps this is because its central plot – a white woman is fascinated by India – is a familiar trope in both novels and films of the Raj. It does take a different approach by intercutting between the present and the 1920s. This presents intriguing opportunities to show ways India has changed physically (the homes of the British Raj have become offices) but also ways it has remained the same culturally.

This carries across in the contrasting stories of two women, both of whom become intrigued by their surroundings and romantically entangled with Indian men. While Olivia is (eventually) disgraced and ostracised by her community, Anne has the freedom to make her own choices. Both women find themselves drifting into life-changes through male seduction. Perhaps this is one of the points of the film in the end – that women, no matter the timeline, are people that things (or men) happen to, rather than being the true owners of their own lives?

It seems the case with Olivia, who never feels in full control her own life, but instead moves inexorably towards a destiny she can’t really influence. Charmingly played, with a sparkle and playful innocence by Greta Scacchi in her film debut, Olivia’s motivations are almost deliberately obscured. Although Ivory uses a device at first of Olivia’s letters being dramatised by Scacchi addressing the camera, this device is swiftly dropped. The letters remain a presence, but we never hear from them. Instead most of Olivia’s actions are narrated by her friend Harry (Nickolas Grace), now an old man. It places a distance between the viewer and Olivia, making her actions harder to understand.

But then that is part of the enigma. India is a land of heat and dust, where normal rules don’t apply and people (particularly those from the West) find themselves reformed by. Olivia has no time for the stuffy, racist British population (especially the frightful woman). But she’s drawn to the Nawab partly because he’s a fusion of East and West, an Indian exotic with the charm of an English gentleman. For his part the Nawab, very well played by Shashi Kapoor, plans a seduction but his motives are as hard to read as Olivia. Is it attraction or revenge on the British for their contempt?

Perhaps it’s a film where we look for deep meaning and motivations, but it is in fact about how we don’t necessarily make grand decisions about our lives, but make a series of in-the-moment decisions. Both Anne and Olivia never seem to proactively make decisions, but instead events largely occur to them. Although this can make for a film sometimes lacking in energy, it does avoid making things obvious for the audience. Even if that can be frustrating when characters remain almost deliberately oblique.

What’s also oddly frustrating about the film is its more modern section. The commentary comparing the present and the past promises much but actually adds little. Anne is a curiously uninvolving character, played with a sweet tenderness by Julie Christie. Anne is hardly proactive and there is very little narrative drive behind her exploration of the past. Strangely the issues the more modern section deals with – including digs at Western cultural tourists – end up feeling less relevant than the issues of race and empire in the 1920s.

And its unfortunate that the 1920s plot line, although well staged and managed, seems extremely familiar – with echoes of A Passage to India and The Jewel in the Crown for starters. While it’s well acted (as well as those mentioned, Christopher Cazenove is very good) and creates an enigmatic atmosphere, you often feel you’re seeing something done better elsewhere. It starts as an investigation into the past, but becomes something more freeform, as if in the heat and dust of India, plans come to nothing. But its air of enigma and portrayal of characters buffeted by small events doesn’t come together into a compelling story or a rich insight into India.

McCabe and Mrs Miller (1971)

Warren Beatty and Julie Christie fail to conquer the Wild West in Altman’s revisionist Western McCabe and Mrs Miller

Director: Robert Altman

Cast: Warren Beatty (John McCabe), Julie Christie (Constance Miller), RenéAuberjonois (Sheehan), Michael Murphy (Eugen Sears), Antony Holland (Ernest Hollander), Bert Ramsen (Bart Coyle), Shelley Duvall (Ida Coyle), Keith Carradine (Cowboy), Hugh Millais (Butler), Corey Fischer (Reverend Elliot), William Devane (Clement Samuels), John Schuck (Smalley)

The Western is such a familiar genre of Hollywood film-making that you can be pretty familiar with nearly all the concepts that  it contains – from the stranger in town through to the final shoot-out. All these familiar tropes were just challenges though for a film-maker like Robert Altman: how do we make a Western that features all these, but then completely twists and subverts it all into something that also feels like a product of the 1970s rather than the 1870s? Well Altman runs with all this in McCabe and Mrs Miller, his successful anti-Western.

In Washington State in 1902, John McCabe (Warren Beatty), a conman and card sharp, rides into Presbyterian Church, a town so small it’s named after its only prominent building. McCabe’s skills at cards quickly make him rich, and as the town’s mining fortunes grow so do his. He sets up a gaming and cat house in the town. Constance Miller (Julie Christie) is a cockney opium addict with experience of running whorehouses and she quickly partners with McCabe, promising that she can raise his profits tenfold. All goes swimmingly – until big business heads into town and makes an offer to buy out McCabe’s holdings (and the whole town) for redevelopment. When McCabe says no he quickly finds himself in over his head.

Altman’s film combines all the techniques that he had been experimenting with throughout his career into a perfect storm of Altmanesque technique. He and Vilmos Zsigmond, his skilled cinematographer, deliberately “flashed” the film to slightly over-expose it, giving the picture a slight sepia hue like a series of old photos. The camera leisurely roves around like curious spectator to the film, letting itself catch moments of interest here and there – sometimes refusing to focus on events that feel, by rights, that they should be centre of the film. It gives the film a real lived in feeling, while also making it look slightly like a historical record of true events. Either way, as the cold hits Washington State, it looks beautiful – candle-lit interiors mixed with coldly blue exteriors of snow and ice-covered surroundings.

But those visuals are as nothing compared to Altman’s experiment with sound. Sticking rigidly to the script was hardly ever Altman’s way and it’s certainly not here. In rehearsals, the actors felt free to experiment with and rework a script that had already been through the hands of several writers. Altman kept this loose, free-flowing, improvisational tone in the final film. As the camera roves round, so does the microphone, picking up snatches of conversation here and there – sometimes giving us a mixture of conversations from which we need to pick out what to listen to. In addition to that, most of the actors deliberately mumble their lines – or happily deliver them from mouths clutching cigars or chewing food. Anarchic is almost the right word for it – Altman doesn’t want to tell you what to listen to, and is more interested in getting across the atmosphere of the scene rather than the facts and figures. It takes some time to get used to – and at points is highly frustrating – but it creates its own mood. 

And this mood is very different from what you might expect from a Western. There is a distinct lack of glamour here. This world of Presbyterian Church is dirty, grimy and lacking in any moral fibre or real sense of right and wrong. The church itself is respected but largely ignored by the citizens, who are far more interested in drinking, screwing and gambling. When violence occurs it is ignored as much as possible or – as in the final shoot-out that ends the film – it happens around people so wrapped up in their own concerns (from domestics, to a large fire) that they barely notice it happening. Needless to say, for those in the fire fight, there are no rules to be played by at all. People are shot in the back, shoot down innocent bystanders, and play by no rules whatsoever, stalking and shooting opportunistically.

McCabe is a perfect hero for this very different kind of Western. As played by Beatty, he is a cocksure coward nowhere near as clever, confident or controlled as he thinks he is. Arriving in the town, he seems like the height of glamour in his bearskin coat, and he swiftly masters the simple townsfolk with his tall tales and charisma. However, the more people who intrude on this world, the more quickly it emerges that McCabe has very little clue about what is going on, is easily cowed and has only the barest understanding of how the world works. Meeting with a lawyer, one scene later he is parroting a (completely misunderstood) version of the law that he has heard from there. Meeting with the “muscle” from the corporation, he deflates like a balloon, desperately making offers hand over foot. Beatty is very good as this puffed up coward, confused and constantly living a front but out of his depth in the world.

Julie Christie’s Mrs Miller is far more worldly than him, immediately able to recognise the dangers and understanding exactly the sort of men McCabe is dealing with. Mrs Miller’s opium habit is a quietly understated obsession, one the other characters seem unaware of, but which the viewer alone seems to know about. It raises questions of course – is this meant to imply perhaps some of what we see is a drug induced fantasy? But it doesn’t impact otherwise the relationship she develops with McCabe, part meeting of partners, part a protective relationship with Miller guiding McCabe.

The rest of the cast is stuffed with a series of Altman regulars, all of whom deliver fine performances. The stand-out is Hugh Millais, an English writer making his acting debut, who is simply sublime as the articulate and ruthless chief heavy sent by the company to intimidate McCabe.

For the film itself, your enjoyment of it is largely going to be affected by how easily you plug into its style of storytelling. There is very little story for much of the first half of the film, instead events continue in a loose and undisciplined style, but the second half delivers a more focused story of ambition pushed too far, and culminates in an impressively filmed ruthless shoot out. It is perhaps more of a film that is about the atmosphere and the style than the story, but as a redeveloped Western that carries across the style of the grimy 1970s it works extremely well. At first I thought I would never get into it, but by the end I found myself wrapped up in the story it was telling. Visually and performance-wise it’s superb. Altman is an acquired taste, but acquire it and you will be richly rewarded. 

Coda: Much like The Long Goodbye I watched this film about a week ago at time of posting and I find myself thinking over several sequences in it again and again with ever more admiration. When watching it I felt it had been over promoted by critics. Now I increasingly think it might be something very special indeed.

The Go-Between (1971)

Julie Christie enlists young Dominic Guard to pass notes in classic adaptation The Go Between

Director: Joseph Losey

Cast: Julie Christie (Marian Maudsley), Alan Bates (Ted Burgess), Dominic Guard (Leo Colston), Margaret Leighton (Mrs Maudsley), Michael Redgrave (Older Leo Colston), Edward Fox (Hugh, Viscount Trimingham), Michael Gough (Mr Maudsley), Richard Gibson (Marcus Maudsley), Roger Lloyd-Pack (Charles)

“The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there.”

It’s a classic line from JP Hartley’s masterpiece novel of youthful disillusionment and trauma, The Go-Between. This film version perfectly captures the novel’s wistful reflections on a past that seems bright and glowing to the young boy caught up in the centre, while carefully and subtly suggesting the darker currents and temptations that lie under the surface. 

In 1900, 12-year-old Leo Colston (Dominic Guard), a middle class boy, spends the summer at the country house of his wealthy school friend. There he finds himself increasingly drawn to the glamour and kindness of the family, who do their best to make Leo feel at home – particularly Marian (Julie Christie), the daughter of the house. Leo also befriends local farmer Ted Burgess (Alan Bates) and finds himself recruited to carry letters between Marian and Ted, little understanding what the messages and arrangements between the two may mean, and what it might mean for her engagement with the decent Viscount Trimingham (Edward Fox). 

The Go-Between is a perfect Chekovian tragedy, which brilliantly captures the hypocrisy and dangers of the final days of the Victorian era. Of course it bubbles down to sex – and there is tonnes of it beneath the surface in the quietly built passion between Marian and Ted. But it’s also class as well – the primary reason why Marian’s affair with Ted remains so illicit is because the farmer (as the younger family members make abundantly clear) is socially unacceptable.

Class weaves itself into every part of the film. The Maudsley family work over time to make Leo feel as comfortable as possible in the house as they are all aware of the social gap between them. The Maudsley family treat Leo as almost a sort of social obligation, quietly buying him new clothes (as he ‘must have forgotten to pack’ the correct clothing for the scorching summer heat) and making much of him at the local cricket game. But Leo can never really forget that he falls somewhere in the middle between the Maudsleys and Tony, and finds himself out of place with both. This awkwardness is perfectly captured in Dominic Guard’s bashful performance.

Class is also lies under Marian’s affair with Burgess – and she seems to know it can never last. Indeed, she has every intention it seems of marrying Trimingham. Trimingam and her father, it’s implied, are even aware of the affair and expect it to burn out. It’s Mrs Maudsley who seems most threatened by the social possibilities of the affair – while the men expect the normal order to reassert itself, Mrs Maudsley (Margaret Leighton, who brilliantly simmers at the edge of the whole film before dominating its closing scenes) seems far more aware of the dangers that love and attraction have.

But it’s a story where the real victims turn out to be those outside the family. Ted Burgess (expertly played by Alan Bates, who made a living of playing son of the soil types like this) winds up feeling like an innocent, a bashful teenager who barely seems to know where to look when Marian accompanies him on the piano while he sings at the celebration after the village cricket match (Mrs Maudsley is appalled at this point). And Ted (constantly described as a lady-killer by Maudsley and Trimingham, despite all evidence to the contrary in his manner – further signposting their awareness of the affair) constantly feels like the weaker partner in the relationship, besotted with the lady of the manor.

As that lady, Julie Christie gives an intriguing performance (even if she is slightly too old for the part). Christie’s Marian is strangely distant, despite her many acts of kindness towards Leo. To what extent is she merely using the boy, winning him over with affection to manipulate him later to deliver her messages? How much does she care for the boy? She understands her relationship with Ted can never be – and is more than prepared to marry Trimingham – but how much is that a defence mechanism against her true feelings? We get only a half suggestion, as Leo does, of how she may really feel. It’s subtly left open for most of the film. 

The film uses a neat device of intercutting moments of the story with the far older Leo (Michael Redgrave, whose voice is perfect for the moments of narration) revisiting the locations of the story again. Everything is in contrast to the bright, luxurious summer of 1900 as the older Leo heads around windswept and rainy locations. Unlike the past, the present day finds the soundtrack drained out by sound effects and ambient noise. It’s a quiet reminder of the foreboding doom that lies over the story – and the film makes good business from the suggestion of trauma that has affected Leo resulting from the events of 1900, and how it has shattered and reshaped his life.

Losey’s direction is a perfect capturing of the languid heat of that 1900 summer, and he perfectly frames events and action for maximum impact. It’s a film made of small looks, quiet asides and suggestions to the audience played from the perspective of a child, where we need to interpret the things we see to get a full understanding of what’s really happening and its implications. Harold Pinter’s script is equally strong, perfectly capturing the mood and feel of Hartley’s novel.

The Go-Between is an excellent film, stuffed with good performances (in addition to those mentioned, Edward Fox and Michael Gough are both excellent), and beautifully shot and filmed. It’s an intelligent and very faithful adaptation of the book that still manages to make the book more cinematic, with the intercutting between past and present giving us a sense of Greek tragedy, and the interrelations between the characters staged with subtly and intrigue. A wonderful adaptation of a great novel.