Lite Russians

Too Healthy: Keira Knightley plays the nurse Lara in public television's Doctor Zhivago.Photo: Joan Marcus

About David Lean’s 1965 version of Boris Pasternak’s sad-sack novel, Pauline Kael was rude: “It’s not art, it’s heavy labor—which, of course, many people respect more than art.” Kael objected not so much to Omar Sharif’s Dr. Z. or Julie Christie’s Nurse Lara as she did to the reconstruction of the Russian Revolution as an epic Panavision set (and to the blatant balalaika music). Unfortunately, as we can see from this Masterpiece Theatre rendition of Doctor Zhivago (Sundays, November 2 and 9; 9 to 11 p.m.; Channel 13), if you skimp on the broad canvas of revolution and civil war, what you’re left with are soap suds and tear jerks, plus a lot of mooning-about, with glowing eyes, intended to suggest the creative throes from which lyric poems will be convulsed.

In my opinion, the only poet Omar Sharif has ever resembled is Kahlil Gibran. With his goofy Michael York grin before a beard eats his face, Hans Matheson (The Mists of Avalon) is definitely an improvement. So is Sam Neill more persuasive than Rod Steiger as Victor Komarovsky, who seduces a teenage Lara before the revolution and stalks her afterward. Steiger was such a powdered sleaze, it was hard to believe he’d be welcome in polite society, much less among commissars; Neill seems to see himself as more of a James Mason– Humbert Humbert kind of guy. As Tonya, the childhood friend Yury Zhivago grows up to marry and betray, Geraldine Chaplin in Lean’s film and Alexandra Maria Lara in the Granada/WGBH mini-series are equally handsome, dignified, and deserving of better. And the absence of a Maurice Jarre score is a small-screen mercy.

As Lara, however … It was no more possible in 1965 than it is now to imagine anyone you’d rather spend a snowy winter in the Urals with than Julie Christie. At first blush, casting Keira Knightley in the part seems a coup. After Bend It Like Beckham and Pirates of the Caribbean, who else would we want to write poems about, or to play football and walk planks with? Besides keeping an amazing number of candles lit wherever she happens to roost, she teaches, she nurses, she mothers, she cuddles, and if she can’t get where she needs to go by train, there is always a cart and a horse. But Knightley is also too healthy and too cute. In real life, instead of taking a shot at Komarovsky, she’d whack him upside his lecherous head with a field-hockey stick. For someone destined to suffer so much, she almost never looks inward at anything ineffable or opaque, and is therefore insufficiently grand-operatic.

“What you’re left with are soap suds and tear jerks, plus a lot of mooning-about, suggesting the creative throes from which lyric poems will be convulsed.”

But if we are to have another Doctor Zhivago, the missed opportunity is political. A screenwriter as resourceful as Andrew Davies, thinking about how the Russian Revolution ate its young, could have and should have found some way to dramatize the opposition between literature and ideology besides how inconvenient revolutions are to love nests. Even Pasternak’s Zhivago, early on, thinks of socialism as “the sea, and all these separate streams, these private individual revolutions, are flowing into it—the sea of life, of life in its own right.” To which he added: “I said life, but I mean life as you see it in a work of art, transformed by genius, creatively enriched.”

Such optimism didn’t last long, and neither did many of the writers: Babel, Pilynak, Gorky, Mandelstam, and Meyerhold—murdered. Yesenin, Mayakovsky, Tsvetayeva, and Fadeyev—suicides. Akhmatova, Bulgakov, Olesha, and Zoshchenko—zipped up in fearful silence, writing, if at all, for the crypt. Everybody else, from Bunin and Zamyatin to Aksyonov, Brodsky, Zinoviev, Sinyavsky, Solzhenitsyn, Voinovich, and Nabokov—émigrés, castaways, jailbirds, and boat people. Unless, of course, they wrote production novels about making sausage, tempering steel, and pouring cement. How come, after such a bright artistic beginning, there was suddenly no more room in the radiant future for swans (Vrubel), palm trees (Sarian), primal stripes (Matiushin), red squares (Malevich), kaleidoscopes (Popova)? For fighting cocks (Kandinsky) and angelic cows (Chagall)? For Stanislavsky’s theater, Stravinsky’s music, and Diaghilev’s ballet? Lara was the least of it.

The Elegant Universe (October 28, 8 to 10 p.m.; November 4, 8 to 9 p.m.; Channel 13), a Nova series, has talking-head and computer-animated fun with the latest in physics, a superstring theory of everything that reconciles the biggest stuff (general relativity) with the littlest (quantum mechanics) in eleven (count ’em) dimensions, plus many parallel universes, all full of vibrating strands of energy (or membranes).

James Brown: Soul Survivor (October 29; 9:30 to 11 p.m.; Channel 13) ascends from Augusta, Georgia, where his mother abandoned him, to superstardom, about which we hear from the Reverend Al Sharpton at considerable length, with time off for bad behavior in various prisons—an American Masters long on facts but as bad as the music-video channels in butchering the songs themselves.

Tru Calling (October 30; 8 to 9 p.m.; Fox) stars a fabulous Eliza Dushku as a young woman who doesn’t like what she sees in the morgue where she works and actually, at frantic speed, tries to do something about it, which means messing with the regrettable past on behalf of the dubious future.

Railroaded in Texas (October 30; 10 to 11 p.m.; Court TV) is the documentary story of a sting operation, drug sweep, mass arrest, and mass conviction of 46 mostly innocent and mostly African-American men and women in Tulia.

Eat This New York (November 1; 9 to 10:30 p.m.; Sundance) follows a couple of good buddies trying for one harrowing year to open a modest restaurant in Williamsburg while the camera keeps turning its attention to people who have already been successful at the impossible business—Drew Nieporent, Danny Meyer, Jean-Georges Vongerichten.

Naked World (November 2; 10:30 to 11:50 p.m.; HBO) revisits Spencer Tunick, who’s moved onward and upward from photographing ordinary people nude in public places to picturing people of all races, shapes, and sizes naked on the streets of seven different continents, even Australia. James Ellroy’s Feast of Death (November 3; 10 to 11:30 p.m.; Showtime) enters the lurid world of the crime novelist, whose inspiration or obsession came from the unsolved murder of his own mother, and who has strong opinions on everything from Los Angeles to the Kennedy assassination.

Lite Russians