The first of this season’s two Dalai Lama related stories, Seven Years in Tibet is likely to be more successful of the two, due to its casting alone. Brad Pitt is the star of Seven Years in Tibet, versus an unknown all-Tibetan cast in Martin Scorsese’s upcoming Kundun, and he gives a decent performance in a good, if not spectacular, mini-epic.
Brad Pitt plays Heinrich Harrer, an Austrian mountain climber, who coldly leaves his wife and unborn child behind to tackle one of the greatest peaks in the Himalayas: the Nanga Parbat. Unfortunately, before the team can successfully climb the peak, World War II starts. Caught in British India, the team is confined in a POW camp.
Harrer and his expedition leader, Peter Aufschnaiter (David Thewlis), eventually escape the camp and make their way through the Himalayas into the country of Tibet (and actually into the forbidden city of Lhasa).
Though first reviled as foreigners, the two are gradually accepted into the culture, attracting the attention of the beautiful tailor Pema Lhaki (Lhakpa Tsamchoe), as well as the young Dalai Lama (Jamyang Wangchuk), to whom Harrer becomes a tutor, and a good friend.
Seven Years in Tibet has lofty goals, and in several ways it succeeds at creating a mini-epic. As can be expected, the film has plenty of excellent scenery. It is truly captivating in its wide scope.
Once you look past his wooden Austrian accent, Brad Pitt actually does a decent job at characterization. Heinrich is cold, uncaring and aloof to begin with, but matures as the film proceeds.
The other characters don’t fare as well, with most being given one emotion or mental state in which they remain throughout the movie (for example, the Dalai Lama is very inquisitive, but rather shallow overall). At other times, the film presents characters, but then fails to develop them at all. As is the case with B.D. Wong, a monk with schemes of his own, but we never really get to know the character or his motivations.
The film skirts the recent revelations of the real-life Harrer’s Nazi SS past. There’s some brief voiceover work that seems to make broad allusions to it, but as acted by Pitt, Harrer seems uncomfortable around the Nazi ideals, rather than embracing them. In either case, though, the film does portray the radical transformation of his character during his Tibetan experiences.
Perhaps the weakest area of the film is in its political struggles. We are presented a oversimplified picture of the conflicts between Tibet and China. More depth in this crucial area would have strengthened the film. As it stands, it is almost a distraction.
Still, although it has its faults, Seven Years in Tibet never bores throughout its lengthy running time. The film could have been richer and more insightful, but it gives you plenty to look at and think upon.