The most interesting thing about The Lady, a movie about Myanmar’s Nobel Peace Prize-winning opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, is its great timing.
Luc Besson’s film, starring Michelle Yeoh, had its premiere at the Toronto International film Festival last September. Earlier this month, Suu Kyi, who was released from house arrest in 2010, was elected to parliament, possibly signalling a historic change in what has been for decades one of the world’s most brutal dictatorships. Even U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton saw the film before meeting with the real Suu Kyi.
But even taken as a handy executive backgrounder to current events, The Lady is a slog, a two-and-a-half hour, painted-on-wood exercise in political iconography. Though French action director Besson ( The Fifth Element, La Femme Nikita) may be particularly ill-suited in illuminating the life of a character known for patient resistance, the problems in this kind of film are far from unique.
Most of these simulated biographies of contemporary political heroes feel static and flat, rarely transcending their function as benign propaganda. That’s true both of films on an epic scale such as Richard Attenborough’s juggernaut Gandhi, or Michael Winterbottom’s more intimate Angelina Jolie-starring A Mighty Heart. Even Martin Scorsese’s representation of contemporary religious leader the Dalai Lama in Kundun was less recognizably human than the troubled, doubting Jesus in The Last Temptation of Christ.
Besson begins on more comfortable turf, an action sequence, with slow-motion set-ups and flying bullets. The year is 1947, Soo Kyi is just a toddler, when her father, General Aung San, the architect of Burmese independence from British rule, is assassinated in a military coup.
Suu Kyi next appears in 1988, now played by Yeoh, as the wife of Oxford academic Michael Aris (David Thewlis), and mother of two sons, Kim (Jonathan Raggett) and Alex (Jonathan Woodhouse). Then comes a call for Suu Kyi to return to Rangoon (now Yangon) to care for her mother, at a point when her home country, now renamed Myanmar, is in the midst of student protests, followed by a violent military crackdown. Suu Kyi lights a candle near her mother’s bedside and cockroaches scuttle away across the floor: a symbol of things to come.
In a mentally erratic moment, the country’s dictator, General Ne Win (Htun Lin), who takes advice from back-alley psychics, makes an apparent concession to demands for democracy; Suu Kyi is asked by her father’s supporters to stay in Rangoon and lead the new National League for Democracy.
Out on the campaign trail, Suu Kyi keeps repeating the message to hordes of beaming followers: Embrace democracy; defend human rights. Though her party wins a landslide victory in a general election, the military regime refuses to respect the people’s wishes. The government, which can’t risk making Suu Kyi a martyr, attempts to neutralize her, keeping her under house arrest, hoping she’ll return to England.
Given the stasis of this multiyear standoff, the movie begs for cinematic style and an imaginative script to bring it to life, but gets neither. Besson’s direction is restrained and workmanlike. Once the predicament is established, the action cross-cuts by rote between three locales: Suu Kyi’s handsome villa prison, where the impeccably attired and flower-bedecked serene leader greets guests; a table where big-hatted generals seethe, smoke and bark orders; and Michael’s cosy home back in England, where he tries to figure out domesticity while doing some political lobbying on his wife’s behalf.
Besson’s bigger error here, as producer and director, was committing to first-time scriptwriter Rebecca Frayn’s amateurish screenplay. At times, scenes play like bad political puppet theatre, as characters are ushered into rooms to provide clumsy exposition. (“My colleagues and I are academics from the history department.... We believe you are the only person who can lead Burma.”)
Subtitles come and go, with key speeches rendered in English and lesser ones in Burmese. Students everywhere seem to be carrying the same English-language paperback of Louis Fischer’s The Life of Mahatma Gandhi.
Thanks to David Thewlis’s gifts as an actor, Michael’s character emerges somewhat more vividly than Suu Kyi’s, and the film evolves into a sentimental love story with a political backdrop. We learn early on that he has been diagnosed with terminal cancer (Aris died in 1999 at the age of 53), and Thewlis’s role is to be adorably selfless and eccentric, making cookies for the boys while Suu Kyi fights to liberate the masses.
At the same time, he lobbies for his wife, though the script makes his efforts look absurdly easy. Getting her a Nobel Peace Prize, for example, consists of putting in a word with another tweedy type at a cocktail party, who promises to make sure “Vaclav Havel and the committee” will look at Suu Kyi’s curriculum vitae.
Later, Suu Kyi mildly begs her husband not to let the world treat her as a “saint.” She reminds him of her faults, her “terrible temper, my impatience,” qualities that never emerge in the film. If only she had cursed once at a broken fingernail or squashed a bug under her slipper, her struggle for peace might have seemed more of a challenge.
Contrast this to The Iron Lady, a film which managed to be both obnoxiously condescending and flattering to the divisive British leader Margaret Thatcher, and left those of all political stripes irritated. The Lady, devoid of either iron or irony, is merely forgettable, a much deeper insult to its subject.
- Directed by Luc Besson
- Written by Rebecca Frayn
- Starring Michelle Yeoh and David Thewlis
- Classification: PG
- 2 stars