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Doctor Zhivago/Carol

Jeremy Clarke

Doctor Zhivago
Directed by David Lean
Cert PG, 200 mins

Directed by Todd Haynes
Cert 15, 118 mins


These two extraordinary films are separated by fifty years. Doctor Zhivago (1965), one of the biggest box office successes of all time and just rereleased in a gorgeous, new 4K digital restoration, is a period romantic drama set against the backdrop of the Russian revolution. Carol (2015) is a period romantic drama set in nineteen-fifties New York. Both concern married protagonists who take on extra-marital partners.

Zhivago comes from the era of 'a cast of thousands' epics and is directed by the visually gifted David Lean. Although it spans urban Moscow, a train journey through warfare in the harsh Russian winter and more provincial locations in the Urals (all shot on studio sets or in Spanish countryside which look fantastic on the big screen), it's a character driven piece in which protagonists struggle to adapt to the changing, post-revolutionary social order. Yuri Zhivago (Omar Sharif), possessed with a passion for writing poetry, graduates as a doctor and marries childhood sweetheart Tonya (Geraldine Chaplin). Lara (an extraordinary performance by Julie Christie) is seduced by and later shoots and wounds unscrupulous businessman Komarovsky (Rod Steiger), then marries revolutionary Pasha (Tom Courtenay). As the revolution takes its toll and their various lives separate and converge, the likelihood of Yuri and Lara becoming lovers increases.

Carol, made by the equally visually astute Todd Haynes, adapts the only book in which Patricia Highsmith wrote openly about lesbianism. Reticent department store worker Therese (Rooney Mara) notices better off customer Carol (Cate Blanchett) which leads after plot complications to the pair of them taking a road trip together. But Carol, devoted to her daughter, is trapped in a loveless marriage with Harge (Kyle Chandler). This isn't trying to be an epic and has no 'cast of thousands' set pieces. Yet, like Zhivago, it boasts terrific performances and really gets under the skin of what makes relationships work or sour. Therese being an insecure and lowly worker, it's the monied Carol who's in control until she encourages Therese to turn a photography hobby into a career at The New York Times, which in turn changes the dynamic between the two women. Unusually for what is essentially a mainstream movie, Carol delivers a highly sympathetic portrayal of a gay relationship.

If Zhivago were made today, its crowd scenes would be computer generated and its sex scenes more explicit. Nevertheless, the film has aged well. Husbands abandon wives to fight 'on the frontline', while poets conjure dreams only to be crushed by the worker-centric State. Amidst all the social upheaval, characters of both sexes find themselves hopelessly adrift. If the turmoil in Carol is more parochial, the film's portrait of men and women trapped by heterosexual, societal norms is no less upsetting. Both films deliver moments of overpowering emotion. Carol's opening frame story includes two touches on Mara's shoulder: one by Blanchett indicating affection and deep but unspoken passion, the other by a male acquaintance suggesting something considerably more casual. Zhivago's late scene, where from a Moscow tram Omar Sharif spots Julie Christie walking down the street a decade since he's last seen her, is nothing less than devastating.