Man, Brad Pitt was sure digging on the number seven in the mid-'90s, because first it was "Se7en", and now he's got "Seven Years in Tibet", so maybe if he made a third seven-themed film before getting out of the '90s, he would have been graced with the luck of not divorcing Jennifer Aniston and ending up with, like, seven kids, most of which I think are ironically from Tibet. Speaking of lame jokes about titles, no, I'm not quoting the lame David Bowie song of the same name, even though, as coincidence would have it, it came out on the opposite end of the year this film was released. Actually, Brad Pitt is rocking something of a Bowie blond hairstyle in this film, so maybe in 1997 this film was competing with both that David Bowie song and Martin Scorsese's own Dalai Lama affair, "Kundun", and let me tell you that it at least tops the former, as well as its predecessor. So, what is this supposed to be "Legends of the Fall II: Tristan Takes Tibet" or something, or am I only thinking that because the films are a little too similar to star Brad Pitt and be released only about three years apart? If that's not bad enough, this film is directed by the guy who did "The Bear", so it's hard to not think that Bart the Bear didn't put a good word in for Brad to Jean-Jacques Annaud. ...You probably don't remember "Legends of the Fall", because it's kind of hard to remember "Legends of the Fall", you know, up until you see this film. No, "Legends of the Fall" was reasonably memorable, and it's not like it's that similar to this film, which is at least has being good to distinguish it, though not especially easily.
No matter how interesting, this subject matter can hardly be easily crafted into a unique film, and it doesn't help that Becky Johnston's script has its own tropes, in dialogue, set pieces and characterization, until becoming nothing if not rather formulaic. This conventionalism reflects a certain laziness to storytelling, found in other aspects of Johnston's script, which, despite its many clever elements, has thin spells to characterization that limit a sense of layering to the characters who drive this dramatic epic which is, to a certain extent, pretty thematically reliant on the evolutions of its characters. Moments of uncertainty to generally thoughtful developmental depths certainly shake a sense of momentum to this layered drama, though not quite as directly as the slow spells, whose sense of pacing is retarded enough in Jean-Jacques Annaud's bland directorial dry spells, and really crippled by excessive filler in Johnston's draggy script. The film initially keeps a pretty solid clip, and at certain points in its body, it really picks up momentum, but there are still so many moments of sheer aimlessness to the dragging of filler that, upon meeting limp spells in directorial storytelling, thin plotting's focus, no matter how hard it tries to branch out. In a moment, I will go more into the richness of this film's substance, at least in concept, but right away I must highly praise the potential of this layered epic, as well as the film's bravery to explore such subject matter in a well-rounded, if slightly excessive fashion, and yet, I can't help but question the structure of the final product, which gets to be so ambitious in its extensive exploration of material that it gradually grows unable to keep up with all that comfortably, incorporating certain important aspects too late for comfort, and dismissing others too suddenly, while jarring along many of the other beats in this path. In the end, as tight as this film's length of just shy of 140 minutes seems to be, pacing is ultimately about as big an issues as anything in this film, and make no mistake, it is an immense problem, bloating plotting with aimless filler and uneven material, and along a formulaic and sometimes thin path no less, until the final product comes dangerously close to falling into underwhelmingness. Lazy and ambitious attributes go a long way in shaking a film that, quite frankly, could have truly stood out, but by no means do they succeed in shaking thorough compellingness, complimented by a sweep that is itself complimented by considerable production value.
An adventure drama which takes audiences from Central Europe to the titular Tibet, this film relies pretty heavily on a sense of scale, and Claude Paré delivers on just that, with art direction that orchestrates Hoang Thanh At's production designs and Leo Baumgartner's, Caito Martins' and Robin Mounsey's location management in a grand, lavish fashion that is not only lovely, but immersive. Seeing as many distinguished settings go backed by immersion value, the art direction strongly reinforces a sense of adventure and scope, which, of course, goes established within a directorial performance by Jean-Jacques Annaud that, despite its near-bland dry spells, stays realized enough in its steadiness to prevent a sense of rushing through extensive material and limit an already pretty prominent sense of dragging, while utilizing a combination of quiet thoughtfulness and John Williams' solid, grand score to breathe well-balanced soul into this drama, resulting in some fine highlights. Were Annaud a little more inspired in his direction, and were Becky Johnston a whole lot more inspired in her script, Annaud could have perhaps driven the film to an outstanding point, because his efforts rarely get too carried away with dramatic meat, and when they are really realized, they provide glimpses of a tighter and more engrossing drama within this still pretty grand and compelling epic. Of course, those glimpses, in addition to the engagement value that is already pretty firmly established, just couldn't be if this film's subject matter wasn't so worthy, juggling themes of a man's adventure to revelation, and a nation's peaceful ways' going challenged by warfare that are interpreted too ambitiously to keep consistent in much more than familiarity, but hold a potential so great that a solid degree of immediate intrigue stands difficult to shake. Johnston's screenplay seems to try at times, what with its couple of thin spots and considerable deal of overblown spots, and yet, at other times, it too is realized, with dialogue pieces that are clever enough, and set pieces that are subtly colorful enough, to provide some adequately entertaining material, in addition to characterization highlights to bond you with the many memorable figures portrayed in this historical opus, who go brought to life by decent performances. The cast is sizable, and the more it expands with talents, the more impressive it becomes, flaunting solid supporting performances by David Thewlis, B.D. Wong and Jamyang Jamtsho Wangchuk, and a worthy lead one by Brad Pitt, who plays himself, only with an admittedly improvable Austrian accent that is either overdone or thin, if not abandoned, but compensates with layered charisma and dramatic depth which capture a sense of evolution as Heinrich Harrer undergoes a long, personal journey. There are plenty of strong aspects throughout the film, and I really do wish that there weren't so many shortcomings, which prevent the final product from, not simply enthralling, but standing out as excellent, but cannot overshadow the strengths which stand firm enough to make a compelling, perhaps even underappreciated epic.
Overall, conventions, thin spells to characterization, bland spells to the atmosphere, aimless spells to filler, and considerable focal unevenness hold a very promising epic back pretty considerably, but not so far back that thoroughly worthy subject matter isn't done enough justice by anything from sweeping art direction to decent writing, inspired direction and solid acting to drive Jean-Jacques Annaud's "Seven Years in Tibet" as a rewarding account of Heinrich Harrer's life-changing adventures in a peaceful culture that comes to undergo change in the midst of conflict.
3/5 - Good