In 1939, an adventurer named Heinrich Harrer (Brad Pitt) attempts to scale a daunting Himalayan mountain that his fellow Germans hope to make into a symbol of Aryan dominance: only Nazis should be able to make the ascent, that kind of thinking. His team’s attempt fails, and Pitt and company are arrested by the British, but he escapes into Tibet with a fellow climber (David Thewlis). Eventually they are accepted into Tibetan society, Thewlis marries a Tibetan woman, and Pitt becomes a tutor for the young Dalai Lama himself.
His contact with the Dalai Lama, which grows into friendship, turns him against Nazism and makes him quietly satisfied when his country loses World War II. It’s a subtle shift in a subtle film; as Harrer is a real person, Seven Years doesn’t want to make him into a cartoon Nazi, but instead attempts to show how Nazism could seem ordinary to those practicing it.
“Subtle” can actually describe the score by John Williams, whose most popular works (Star Wars and Steven Spielberg’s films) rarely have that quality*. The music of the Tibetan people is rendered and used incisively in the film as well, such as an amazingly guttural chanting and the blowing of 20-foot-long horns. The clichéd Asian sound of the gong (Bwonnnnnnng) isn’t even heard until near the very end—as opposed to the film’s commercials, which use overly sunny music by Randy Edelman, the composer of the sweeping score to Gettysburg.
(Trailers and commercials for films rarely use the music actually composed for that film, since that music is almost never available early enough. The typical solution is to use pre-existing music-but this can wrongly depict a film. The first Star Wars was advertised with the “Winter” movement of The Four Seasons, which is about as far from the actual Star Wars score as can be imagined.)
The best balancing act Seven Years pulls off is in portraying to Western audiences the sense that, to Tibetans, the Dalai Lama is the earthly incarnation of godly forces. The very young actors who portray him up to age 14 practically radiate with this man-god’s great intelligence and spirituality. Seven Years also gives a thumbnail sketch of differences between how Tibetans view life and how Westerners view it.
Still, this is a very Western approach to the material, presenting Tibet through the eyes of a European (it also is directed by a European, Frenchman Jean-Jacques Annaud of The Bear). It remains to be seen how Martin Scorcese’s upcoming Kun Dun, also about the Dalai Lama, presents this truly remarkable and tragic story. Seven Year’s biggest flaw may be in not showing, except in symbolic ways, just how much Tibet was damaged when China took it over, damage yet to be fully conveyed to much of the world. A film by a Chinese filmmaker about the takeover of Tibet could be both fascinating and more compelling, but Seven Years is good for a start.
* Modern-day footnote: Bad Chris, no doughnut. You had an unfair critic moment there, calling much of John Williams’s work not sutble. You just meant he writes “big” music (no duh), but he does it with subtlety (sometimes, like in The Phantom Menace, his work is more subtle than the film it’s for); it just sounded more critic-y to impugn large swaths of his work. Always try to be fair!