Seven Years in Tibet

Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

October 5, 1997

Austrian mountaineer Heinrich Harrerís adventures from 1939 through 1951 make for a fascinating story. On an expedition to the Himalayas, Harrer (played by Brad Pitt with a shaky accent) and his party were captured by British forces in India. After several daring but unsuccessful attempts, Harrer escaped from the POW camp and made it into Tibet. After initially being rejected by the Tibetans, he lived among them and eventually taught the teenage Dalai Lama (the spiritual leader of the Tibetan Buddhists) about the Western world.

The film based on his memoirs, Seven Years in Tibet, captures only a fraction of the adventure and the spiritual and social implications of Harrerís journeys. However, the movie is still worth a look simply because itís one of the most gorgeous flicks in recent memory. French director Jean-Jacques Annaud (Quest for Fire) makes terrific use of the locations (the Andes substitute for the Himalayas) and gives the movie a strong sense of wonder. The temples of Lhasa (the Tibetan version of Mecca) are recreated lovingly and many times Annaud and his crew amaze by getting the camera into places where it would seem impossible to film.

As drama, Seven Years in Tibet, falls short of its images. Harrerís book says little about his own life (for example, he omits his recently disclosed involvement with the SS), and screenwriter Becky Johnstonís attempts at fleshing him out sometimes feel false, and Brad Pittís adequate but unspectacular performance doesnít help. Without the involvement of a relatively bankable star like Pitt, this movie would probably never have been made. While one admires Pitt for embracing a fairly risky project (with its favorable depiction of the Dalai Lama, this thing is not going to play in China), it would have been interesting to see what a more capable thespian like Ralph Fiennes could have done with this role.

Toward the end, the film gains momentum as Harrer gets to know the Dalai Lama. Young Jamyang Wang Chuck gives a charming and energetic performance as the future Nobel Prize-winning leader. Itís an intimidating role. Chuck has to make the audience believe that heíll grow up to be a great statesman and come across as a three-dimensional youngster. He not only succeeds, but he forces Pitt out of his trademark moroseness. As a result, the scenes between the two are the most moving and enduring in the film.

In fact, Seven Years in Tibet sometimes feels slow because it needs more scenes like these. Harrer recalls the Tibetans he knew warts and all. If the movie had this same approach, the eventual domination of the Tibetans by the Chinese might have had more impact.

Nonetheless, Seven Years in Tibet is frequently remarkable. Itís a shame that Annaud does a better job of painting the landscape than those who populate it (PG-13). Rating: 6.


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This page was last updated on 10/28/97.
Ó 1997 Dan Lybarger


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