“Seven Years in Tibet” opens not with a spectacular mountain vista, not with a shot of Lhasa’s fabled golden-roofed Potala but with a single word, impressive in the size of its capital letters: BRAD. It’s only a quirk of the credit design that the name appears that way, but it really tells you all you need to know about the two hours and 11 minutes that follow.
Despite all the media buzz about “Tibet’s” unflattering portrait of the Communist Chinese and the newly revealed Nazi past of the film’s real-life protagonist, mountaineer Heinrich Harrer, what we have here is an old-fashioned star vehicle that has more in common with “Lost Horizon” than with anything remotely political.
It may be cold up on the roof of the world, but that doesn’t mean star Brad Pitt isn’t given the opportunity to go bare-chested to appease his determined fans.
Though Pitt is as attractive as ever, “Seven Years” offers other things to look at and in fact functions better as a travelogue than as a drama. Set partly in Tibet just after World War II, when fate cast Harrer in the role of unofficial tutor to the young Dalai Lama, its Robert Fraisse cinematography is strong on the country’s vivid pageantry and colorful costumes.
Logistics and political problems led director Jean-Jacques Annaud to shoot in the foothills of the Andes, on the Argentina-Chile border, but his passion for authenticity led him to import both yaks from Montana and nearly 100 Tibetan monks from a monastery in India. When publicists say no expense was spared, this is what they mean.
Annaud (“The Lover”) has always been a director partial to wide-screen exotica, but his best films, “Quest for Fire” and “The Bear,” do without conventional dialogue. The script here is by Becky Johnston, whose last feature was another star vehicle, “Prince of Tides.” It is burdened with lines like “Buttered tea was never my cup of tea” and has a tendency to simplify everything, from Harrer’s domestic situation to the reason China was able to take over Tibet.
That’s OK in theory, this being a movie after all, but “Tibet” is also hampered by an overall sluggishness. Harrer not only spends seven years in Tibet, it takes him almost that much time to get there, and the journey seems to take forever. And waiting for the film’s obvious and not very dramatic theme to kick in is also not worth the wait.
None of this is particularly Pitt’s fault. He does what he can with what he has, smiling his one-of-a-kind smile and giving a respectable star’s performance. One thing he can be faulted for is his newly minted Austrian accent, painful at moments but mostly just an unnecessary hindrance that pulls you out of the picture. Some actors would be well-advised to not bother with foreign accents, and Pitt is one of them.
“Seven Years in Tibet” introduces us to Pitt’s Heinrich Harrer in 1939, handsome as an Aryan god and about to coldly leave his pregnant wife for a chance to join a German-sponsored expedition led by Peter Aufschnaiter (David Thewlis) that will attempt to climb Nanga Parbat, one of the highest of the Himalayas.
This icy farewell turns out to be characteristic of Harrer, depicted for most of the script as an arrogant egotist, self-centered and aloof, someone who never apologizes and never feels remorse. When Aufschnaiter says to him, “No wonder you’re always alone, no one can stand your miserable company,” it’s a judgment even the man himself accepts as accurate.
Harrer’s character doesn’t even change during years spent in a British prisoner of war camp in India, where his mountain-climbing team ends up when World War II breaks out. While he’s secretly pining away for the son he fears he’ll never see (sniff, sniff), on the surface he’s the same rotter he’s always been.
Intercut with Harrer’s difficulties are scenes of the boy Dalai Lama, the spiritual and secular leader of Tibet, growing up lonely in Lhasa’s Potala palace. What he yearns for, aside from more companionship than his mother (played by the real Dalai Lama’s sister, Jetsun Pema), is knowledge of the West. Clearly these two have a date with destiny.
Harrer and Aufschnaiter manage to escape from the British and bicker their way across the rigors of the Himalayas, sneaking into Tibet despite a strict anti-foreigner policy. Once inside Lhasa, they compete for the affections of Pema Lhaki (Lhakpa Tsamchoe), the only English-speaking Western-style female tailor in the entire city. And she’s attractive, too.
Harrer gets a bit involved in Tibetan politics and the machinations of rivals played by B.D. Wong and Mako. But mostly he ends up as unofficial tutor/best buddy to the 14-year-old Dalai Lama (Jamyang Jamtsho Wangchuk).
The film’s theme, that working with the Dalai Lama redeems the bratty Harrer, takes so long developing that it has dissipated its welcome before it arrives. And we don’t actually see the transformation; Harrer just wakes up one day and mends his ways. Maybe it’s just too hard to be selfish in that thin mountain air.
xxxx 1. “Seven Years In Tibet” Location: Spokane Valley Mall, Coeur d’Alene, Post Falls Cinemas Credits: Directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud; starring Brad Pitt, David Thewlis, B.D. Wong, Mako, Danny Denzongpa, Victor Wong, Ingeborga Dapkunaite, Jamyang Jamtsho Wangchuk, Lhakpa Tsamchoe, Jetsun Pema Running time: 2:14 Rating: PG-13
2. Other views Here’s what other critics say about “Seven Years in Tibet:” Janet Maslin/New York Times: For better and definitely for worse, the renowned explorer Heinrich Harrer is a more interesting figure than the Brad Pitt character in Jean-Jacques Annaud’s “Seven Years in Tibet.” Janet Weeks/Los Angeles Daily News: There are Nazis. There are mountains. But this time, the hills are alive not with the sound of music but the acrimony of historical debate. “Seven Years in Tibet” … has kicked up yet another controversy over Hollywood’s telling of history.