“Now you know,” Michael Aris (David Thewlis) tells his wife, Aung San Suu Kyi (Michelle Yeoh), “The world is united in calling you a saint.” Just so, The Lady is a bleeding-heart biopic, but how could it not be? Few subjects alive are as worthy of hagiography as Aung San Suu Kyi.
That’s not to say that Luc Besson’s adulation is trouble-free. The filmmaker has spent his career training his lens on distinctive women, with a fixation that borders on the imprudent (think: Anne Parillaud in La Femme Nikita or Milla Jovovich in The Fifth Element, or Jovovich again in The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc). The women in Besson’s world are redeemed and redeeming, in ways that range from sleazy to reverential. The Lady falls squarely into the latter category.
Besson and screenwriter Rebecca Frayn approach Suu Kyi’s life by the most direct route. Apart from a few, almost tentative, stabs at time shifts in the opening sequences, The Lady is obdurately linear. It covers her 15-year house arrest, her stand for democracy in one of the world’s most repressive countries, her marriage to the late Oxford scholar Aris, and heart-wrenching separation from him and her two children. It certainly underscores her sacrifice.
It’s not the film’s fault that its focus on brutality and suffering already seems a little on dated. In light of rapid recent reforms in Burma, capped by the landslide victory of Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy in democratic by-elections, the nation seems poised for a bright new era.
That said, Suu Kyi’s story remains compelling and the film’s version makes clear the power of her conviction. It probably helps that Yeoh looks extraordinarily like Suu Kyi and it’s admirable that she learned Burmese for the role. Besson’s visuals are reliably handsome, with an authentic evocation of place: the heat and atmosphere in the street scenes of Rangoon are remarkably convincing (the film was actually shot in Bangkok).
However, The Lady becomes torn between its two primary themes: the nobility of Suu Kyi’s cause and the emotional costs of her dedication, which include the loss of her loved ones for goals that seem no nearer in sight at the end of the film than the beginning. Neither of these is handled well. The screenplay never achieves an emotional arc from them, and the dialogue rarely goes beyond expediency.
Such structural limits have predictable effects: Thewlis can be a great actor, but he has little to do here beyond looking perpetually worried, if determined. When he points out that he hasn’t seen his wife for three years, we imagine the primal, emotional pain he must feel, but we see none of it. During one reunion with Suu Kyi, on the balcony of her house in Burma, he confesses his unhappiness and she offers to allow him to leave her. This scene suggests what the movie might have been, revealing their mutual doubt and guilt, their anger and recriminations. But Suu Kyi appears permanently transcendent.
At least there’s no question whom we should hate. In The Lady, Burma’s military junta are a brigand of ineffectual and superstitious buffoons with nothing better to do than sit around agonizing over the latest news headline. In a laughable contrivance, General Ne Win (Htu Lin) arrives at the decision not to kill Suu Kyi (for fear of her becoming a martyr) by consulting cards and a fortuneteller in a dingy back alley. Yes, he’s evil and backwards.
The film’s history is dubious, too. An early scene shows the assassination of Suu Kyi’s father, the Burmese national hero Aung San, by a gangster wearing a red scarf. The film tries to link this assassination to a conspiracy involving the evil military, who wear red scarves as they indiscriminately murder civilians. It’s a clumsy link: in reality, Burma’s former Prime Minister, U Saw, was tried and executed for murdering Aung San; the military junta, which did not exist at the time of the assassination, had nothing to do with it. the film further implies that the government is terrified Suu Kyi will carry on her father’s legacy, which is only partially true. The military rulers drew extensively on Aung San’s legacy to justify their own rule, and his name was invoked as a martyr as often by them as by the National League for Democracy.
Other depictions of historical events are equally confusing. In his campaign to mobilize the international community, Aris meets with a Washington diplomat in 1989, who says the United States can’t apply sanctions to Burma because it would only “tighten China’s economic strangle-hold on the country.” The logic behind this bizarre international relations tangent is never explained, and it is never referred to again. Suu Kyi embarks on a tentative friendship with a young and uncertain soldier guarding her house, but it comes to nothing. Even a key event — Suu Kyi’s apparent release from house arrest — is granted little context, until we learn that, years later, she is, well and truly, under lock and key again.
As the The Lady is unable to interpret its historical backdrop, to explain any event beyond what we’ve seen and heard already, it becomes an overlong and cursory experience, a superficial portrait. And as The Lady reminds you of how the tragedies of Suu Kyi’s story, you wish you were able to like it more, to admire this as much as you do the lady herself.