Seven Years in Tibet
Directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud. Starring Brad Pitt, David Thewlis, B.d. Wong, Mako, Jamyang Jamtsho Wangchuk. (1997, PG-13, 136 min.)
REVIEWED By Russell Smith, Fri., Oct. 10, 1997
Forget the trailers: Seven Years in Tibet is emphatically not another of those sprawling, inert, beached-whale travelogue movies à la Out of Africa. Nor is it a jerry-rigged contrivance serving no other purpose than to showcase Brad Pitt's otherworldly pulchritude. In fact, this adaptation of Austrian mountaineer Heinrich Harrer's autobiographical book may find even the straightest women and gayest men repelled by Pitt's willingness to play Harrer as every inch the arrogant, preening shitheel he seems to have been. The story begins in 1939 when Harrer leaves his pregnant wife to fend for herself while he indulges himself in a long Himalayan climbing expedition. But shortly after he reaches the mountains, war breaks out and Harrer, a National Socialist Party member, is shunted into a British POW camp. After several escape tries, he and expedition leader Peter Aufschnaiter (Thewlis) succeed and find sanctuary in Lhasa, the holiest city of Tibetan Buddhism and the home of the Dalai Lama. Here, long exposure to the pacifistic, ego-effacing Tibetan people helps him effect a halting but complete refurbishment of his blinkered, Nazi-brat soul. Annaud (The Lover, The Name of the Rose, Quest for Fire) may be, with all due respect to Stanley Kubrick, the most talented adapter of literary source material in recent film history. Seven Years confirms his mastery by doling out a perfect ratio of moving interpersonal drama and visual enchantment. (The images are almost physically overwhelming, and you'll swear you can feel the icy winds knifing through Lhasa's narrow streets.) In the film's classical structure, a trio of antagonists push Harrer toward his spiritual rebirth. Peter, played with typical grit and finesse by Thewlis, helps him build from scratch a working concept of friendship. Debate with a morally pliable young court minister (Wong) crystallizes his sense of principle. And, most important, the teenaged Dalai Lama (Jamyang, a remarkable young actor) helps Harrer grasp the sad absurdity of human vanity. In the past, I've been an irrationally hard sell on Pitt, but his performance here -- unmannered, wide-ranging, and effortlessly controlled -- buries any remaining doubt that he's one of his generation's best actors. Working with Thewlis, who also belongs on that short list, only enhances the effect of his terrific work. Words (mine anyway) don't do justice to the rich, knowing, subtly humorous quality of this film. Though most of its key dramatic turns occur in its characters' minds, the unfolding story seems to radiate from the screen like sunlight, filling the viewer with a deep, almost sensual pleasure. This experience is the bedrock foundation of Annaud's film, and it completely obviates any taint of cheap sentimentality in a conclusion that yanks unapologetically on the heartstrings. Ready-made blurbage: If you see only one big, sumptuous, Arthouse Lite movie this year, make it Seven Years in Tibet.