In real life, Austrian mountaineer (and former National Socialist Party member) Heinrich Harrer's personal and spiritual quest in Tibet took nearly a decade. But that's no reason for the cinematic journey to feel like it takes nearly that long.
To be fair, "Seven Years in Tibet" is a handsome-looking and mostly well-acted feature that dramatizes Harrer's memoirs. However, with a running time of 133 minutes, the film feels too long by at least a half-hour, and the whole thing is somewhat lacking in the emotional vibrancy needed to completely pull off the story on such a grand scale.Also, director Jean-Jacques Annaud ("The Bear," "Quest For Fire") has taken a big risk in casting megastar Brad Pitt as an almost irredeemable character who has a dramatic change of heart. Although there are some lapses in his Austrian accent, Pitt does fine.
The film picks up Harrer's story in 1939, just before the Olympic gold-medalist set out to climb Nanga Parbat, one of the highest peaks in the Himalayas. But an avalanche forces the expedition back to their base camp, where he and the other mountain climbers are captured by British soldiers.
Eventually, Heinrich and Peter Aufschnaiter (David Thewlis), another member of the expedition, escape from an internment camp in India. Over the course of the next two years, the two make their way through the Himalayas to Lhasa, the spiritual center of Tibet.
There, Peter falls in love with a beautiful seamstress (Lhakpa Tsamchoe) and Heinrich becomes a tutor for the young Dalai Lama (Jamyang Jamtsho Wangchuk), the country's religious leader - who in turn becomes a sort of surrogate son for Harrer, who had abandoned his own son before he was born.
While the war in Europe has ended by that time, the war in Asia threatens to envelop this Shangri-La, as Red Chinese forces decide to unite much of the continent, including Tibet.
Annaud - with help from cinematographer Robert Fraisse - makes the most out of the handsome footage of Argentine locations, which sub for Tibet and India, and a great John Williams score. Unfortunately, neither he nor screenwriter Becky Johnston ("Prince of Tides") does as well with the story, which is more shallow and less involving than it could have or should have been.
In fact, the whole thing feels sort of like an attempt to graft "The English Patient" onto "The Last Emperor" - except for the fact that those two films were much more vivid and memorable.
And it doesn't help that Pitt's character is so unsympathetic and basically an ingrate through most of the film. Fortunately, there are strong supporting performances from Thewlis and a cast of Asian veterans - including Victor Wong and Mako, as well as newcomers Tsamchoe and Wangchuk - to balance it out.
"Seven Years in Tibet" is rated PG-13 for wartime violence, a few scattered profanities and brief gore.