Before you flip out, no, I haven’t forgotten what the name of this website is, nor has it slipped my mind the general region from which the films reviewed here originate. That said, the chances of any Asian filmmakers tackling the thorny subject of activist Aung San Suu Kyi and the political stalemate in Burma (or Myanmar) are low. Asian film industries have limited resources and focus first and foremost on their own markets (India excepted). Add to that the fact that China, the only country in the world with any kind of diplomatic relationship with the junta, is the holy grail for just about everything and anyone and what you wind up with is a perfect storm that creates a “hands off” situation. No one wants to upset the PRC, and so no one is going to set Aung’s story to celluloid. Or digital memory. Or whatever.
That leaves the so-called responsibility of mounting a biopic like The Lady to the rest of the filmmaking community. It just so happens that that filmmaker is not Luc Besson. Besson is well known as the producer-writer of mindlessly enjoyable trash like the upcoming Lock-Out, action cult hits Leon and La Femme Nikita and Jason Statham’s entire oeuvre. But occasionally Besson makes a stab at cinematic respectability, like he did with The Messenger. Things rarely work out Besson’s way; his new wave kineticism takes over every time.
That’s what happens here. The Lady opens in Rangoon in 1947, when Suu Kyi’s (soon to be beloved) father Aung San leads the movement to free Burma from British rule and establish a democratic government and is promptly murdered. The entire opening sequence is pure Besson, all slow-mo and frantic editing with bursts of violence, and this sets a conflicted tone for the rest of the film. Suu Kyi’s story after fleeing the country is familiar by now (and if it’s not, seriously, pick up a newspaper) and The Lady proceeds to flit around from Oxford, back to Rangoon, with a stop in Oslo from 1988 to 2007.
What should separate The Lady from a million biopics like it is the equal focus on the devotion of Suu (Michelle Yeoh) and her husband, Oxford academic Michael Aris (David Thewlis, with full nutty professor hair) to each other through the struggle, and the unimaginable sacrifices they made. But UK filmmaker Rebecca Frayn’s frequently dreadful script reduces the ordeal to pulpy romance. What are we to make of dialogue like, “How I’ve longed to hold you in my arms again.”? Frayn rushes through Suu’s life as if she had a checklist nearby — defining ’88 massacre, done; first house arrest, done; suppressed election, done; Nobel Prize, done — and as a result never generates a sense of urgency or impact. Are the “news items” so familiar Frayn and Besson opted to look at what that news meant to Suu and Aris? Perhaps, but they drop the ball there too.
The Lady is guilty of a great deal of silly Hollywoodisms that detract and distract from what should be (and in reality, is) a compelling and inspiring slice of history in the making. General Ne Win (Htun Lin) is constantly veiled in a cloud of cigarette smoke, whereas Aris, despite a 2-pack a day habit, is not. Once Suu Kyi decides to fight the good fight she’s never without a symbolic frangipani in her hair. Composer Eric Serra’s swelling strings are the most heavy-handed of emotional cues.
As Suu Kyi, Yeoh looks the part (there’s a creepy Tina Fey/Sarah Palin thing going on) and it’s easy to see what drew her to the role. Sadly, she also comes off uncomfortable in her own skin, wrestling with the required Burmese-inflected English. As a result her speech comes off as stilted and draws attention away from what’s she’s saying to how she’s saying it. She comports herself in a way that is regal and, dare I say it, ladylike, but spends a great deal of time crying. It’s as if Besson and Frayn are affirming the idea that women just can’t handle being in the kind of position Aung San Suu Kyi put herself in. Hey, I’m not suggesting that missing her sons Kim (Jonathan Raggett) and Alex (Jonathan Woodhouse) graduations and choosing to stay in Rangoon as Aris died aren’t worthy of tears. To that point, however, the struggle between the personal and the political are painted so thinly those privately agonising moments have little meaning. As viewers, we never really learn what pushed this “Oxford housewife” to action as the “steel orchid”, nor what was at the root of putting a country she hadn’t lived in for 40 years ahead of her family. Ironically, you’d learn more by reading that newspaper.