Brad Pitt climbs lotsa mountains and meets the young Dalai Lama, but doesn’t carry the audience with him for much of the odyssey in “Seven Years in Tibet.” Despite some magnificent widescreen lensing, faultless ethnographic detail and a timely sympathy for the plight of the Tibetan people, director Jean-Jacques Annaud’s true-life tale about a self-obsessed Austrian mountaineer who learns selflessness in the Himalayas too rarely delivers at a simple emotional level. Pitt’s name and the exotic, bigscale nature of the yarn should ensure initial B.O. interest, but pic looks to scale only midrange peaks domestically, with international picking up some of the slack. “Tibet” will also prove an interesting test case for auds’ interest in such subject matter, as Martin Scorsese’s “Kundun,” centered specifically on the Dalai Lama, readies for Christmas release.
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Annaud’s previous pics (“Quest for Fire,” “The Lover,” “The Bear,” “The Name of the Rose”) have often shown a tendency to get bogged down in local or historical detail at the expense of pure emotional sweep. In “Tibet,” which starts with the hurdle of asking auds to identify with a ruthlessly self-absorbed member of the Nazi Party, the script by Becky Johnston (“The Prince of Tides”) rarely hits the heights of eloquence or poetry needed to engage viewers in the protag’s interior struggle or underpin the visual sweep of the picture. With the first half of the narrative skipping from dateline to dateline as we follow his progress to Tibet, and a good chunk of the dialogue devoted to cultural backgrounding and historical footnoting, Pitt’s character remains a somewhat cold, one-dimensional cipher prior to finally meeting the young Dalai Lama. It’s only then — well over an hour into the movie — that the picture starts to tread solid dramatic ground.
The blond, Aryan-looking Heinrich Harrer (Pitt) is introduced in Austria, 1939, as he sets out with buddy Peter Aufschnaiter (David Thewlis) on a four-month trek to the Himalayas to conquer Nanga Parbat peak. Several previous teams have already failed, and scaling the mountain has now become a matter of Teutonic pride. Harrer’s farewell to his heavily pregnant wife (Ingeborga Dapkunaite) at the railroad station is cruelly unemotional.
Despite a bloody injury, Harrer saves the life of Aufschnaiter on the mountain face. But the team fails in its mission, and, as WWII has officially started by the time of its descent, the group is interned by the British in a North Indian POW camp.
Harrer, ever the loner, tries several times to escape, but ironically succeeds only when he joins a team led by Aufschnaiter in fall 1942. Striking off on his own to the north, he’s rejoined by his friend when almost close to death, and the pair eventually reach the closed kingdom of Tibet, where they’re first rebuffed at the border but then allowed to enter. Smuggling themselves into the capital, Lhasa, they are later given the singular honor (for foreigners) of being allowed to stay. Aufschnaiter falls for a female tailor (Lhakpa Tsamchoe), whom he marries.
By this point, at which the movie has been running for around an hour, the audience has been treated to a wealth of incident (mountain climbing, a POW escape, trekking through hostile landscape) and some stunning widescreen vistas. Yet Harrer has remained essentially the same buttoned-up character as at the start, and the long-limbed yarn has only just cleared its throat.
Though the movie crosscuts during the first half between Harrer’s exploits and Tibet, the main character drama is basically between Harrer and Aufschnaiter, whose bonds of friendship are, however, more stated than felt. With Pitt and English thesp Thewlis both hampered by doing various versions of a German accent, there are added barriers to making their edgy, remote relationship come alive onscreen. Though both actors are detailed technicians, there’s minimal chemistry between them; only in a later scene when Harrer visits the married Aufschnaiter after a long period of separation does their friendship really come to life.
Pic’s emotional clout is largely thanks to the scenes between Pitt and Kundun, the boy Dalai Lama (Bhutanese actor Jamyang Jamtsho Wangchuk), which have zest and some welcome humor, as well as real onscreen bonding. Even here, however, Johnston’s fragmented script doesn’t really rise to the challenge: Harrer’s building of a movie theater at Kundun’s request (almost a subject for a film in itself) and his gradual acceptance of Tibetan values are treated as just two of several strands in an over-busy, didactic script that takes in cultural info, historical events and even Harrer’s distant relationship with a son he’s never seen back home.
Pitt turns in a game, focused perf but is saddled with the role of essentially a bystander to history rather than a proactive shaper of events. Thewlis, equally perfectionist, tends to come in and out of focus rather than truly partner Pitt throughout the movie. Aside from the sparky Wangchuk, who’s excellent as Kundun, several smaller perfs make one wish the actors had more screen time to develop their roles, especially Tsamchoe as Aufschnaiter’s strong Tibetan wife and B.D. Wong as a government secretary whose loyalties to the Tibetan cause remain suspect.
Production values are tiptop, with all of the reported $70 million budget up on the screen: from production designer At Hoang’s clever use of Argentine locales and the foothills of the Andes for Tibet, to Enrico Sabbatini’s lived-in costumes, both for Tibetans and Westerners. John Williams’ score, though thematically unmemorable, is effective when allowed to bloom — which, apart from the end title, unfortunately occurs all too rarely.
And that’s the basic Achilles’ heel of “Seven Years in Tibet”: For a story with all the potential of a sweeping emotional drama set in great locations, too often you just long for the pic to cut loose from the ethnography and correct attitudes and go with the drama in old Hollywood style.