For those whose first question is why — as in “Why adapt a novel already made into David Lean’s regal 1965 film?” — well, it is called “Masterpiece Theater,” so it’s not like they can remake “Happy Gilmore.” Some will rightfully pine for Maurice Jarre’s Oscar-winning score, Julie Christie and Omar Sharif, yet this somewhat less epic take on Boris Pasternak’s book is a creditable version, featuring outstanding performances and considerable romance. And hey, kids, it sure beats reading the Cliffs Notes.
Gloriously shot in Slovakia and the Czech Republic under Italian director Giacomo Campiotti, this latest “Zhivago” benefits from fortuitous timing, with Keira Knightley as the set-upon Lara coming off her exposure in “Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl.” Whether walking the plank or plodding through the snow, she’s a radiant figure and clearly equal to a role far more demanding than the average Bruckheimer production.
At its core, the story remains a heartbreaking exploration of love set against World War I and the Russian Revolution, as the noble Yury Zhivago (Scottish thesp Hans Matheson) weds his cousin Tonya (Alexandra Maria Lara), only to fall desperately in love with Lara, a nurse searching for her missing husband (Kris Marshall).
The focus in this production, however, seems more squarely on Lara, beginning with her being passed on to her mother’s unctuous lover Komarovsky (Sam Neill), whose obsession with the girl leads to two chance encounters with Zhivago — first following her mother’s attempted suicide and later after Lara’s feeble shot at killing her tormentor.
Compared with the Lean film, this production also devotes more time to the youths of Lara and Yury, each played by actors younger than Christie and Sharif were when they stepped into those roles.
Neill is particularly effective as the sneering Komarovsky, who manages to shift with the changing political winds in a way the other characters cannot. By contrast, Matheson’s sunken eyes capture the toll Zhivago’s travails exact upon him, both spiritually and physically.
Working from a script by Andrew Davies, whose adaptations include “Pride and Prejudice” and “Bridget Jones’s Diary,” Campiotti and cinematographer Blasco Giurato bring a wan, desiccated look to the project, effectively incorporating glimpses of newsreel footage that fade into the action. Deftly capturing the horrors of war, they have managed to do so in a manner that is moving without being maudlin.
Coming on the heels of the much-adapted “Goodbye, Mr. Chips” and “The Hound of the Baskervilles,” “Zhivago” adds another quill to “Masterpiece Theater’s” well-feathered cap even as the franchise prepares to lose underwriting from ExxonMobil next year, after more than three decades of sponsorship. You’d think an oil company with a spotty image wouldn’t want to abdicate such a prestigious forum, but the announcement was seen as yet another sign of PBS’ own woes.
Yet much as public television’s detractors would like to hasten its demise, productions such as this remind us why it still has a place — especially for older audiences and children who have been largely abandoned by the commercial networks in their steadfast devotion to young-adult demos.
That isn’t to say the major nets completely shy away from such material. In fact, anyone hungry for a love triangle involving beautiful, angst-ridden people will have two choices Sunday, though even fans of ABC’s “Alias” will concede it doesn’t quite approach the operatic levels of Russian melodrama.