Ratings: 3 stars out of 5
Luc Besson, best known for “La Femme Nikita” and “Leon”, here directs an admirably earnest biopic about Burmese political activist and global icon Aung San Suu Kyi. The film is a real change of pace for both Besson and his leading lady Michelle Yeoh, who swaps her usual high-kicking woman-of-action persona for something much subtler and more affecting. “The Lady” has its flaws but nevertheless manages to be a worthy and often moving account of a remarkable life.
The story begins in 1947 when Suu Kyi is only two years old. Her father, Aung San, is nominally in charge of Burma as the country’s hard-fought independence from colonial rule draws near. However, along with a number of his cabinet ministers, they are denied their moment of triumph when they are ruthlessly assassinated, plunging the country into a long, downward spiral of political turmoil which ultimately leads to the establishment of a tyrannical military regime.
Fast forward to 1988, where Suu Kyi (Yeoh), now an adult, lives in Oxford with her husband Michael Aris (David Thewlis) and their two sons, Kim (Jonathan Raggett) and Alexander (Jonathan Woodhouse). Suu Kyi is summoned back to Burma when her mother suffers a stroke. Initially she merely intends to stay for a week or two in order to nurse her mother through her time of need.
However, during her visit, Suu Kyi finds Burma to be a land of extraordinary violence, oppression and misery. She witnesses corrupt soldiers brutally killing student protesters and sees desperate civilians demonstrating for their rights, using old photos of her father to represent their cause. It isn’t long before Suu Kyi is approached by the people and asked to lead them in their fight for a democratic and peaceful Burma.
The main thrust of the film deals with Suu Kyi’s painful personal sacrifice. One moment she is a loving housewife and mother; the next she is a political figurehead on the verge of leading millions of mistreated Burmese citizens to freedom. Fearful of her influence, the military junta place her under house arrest for many years, isolating Suu Kyi from her husband, sons and devoted followers.
Yeoh is a revelation. Not only does she bear a remarkable resemblance to the real Aung San Suu Kyi, she also shows a surprising emotional range in the film’s more intimate scenes. The only weakness with Yeoh’s performance is that her enunciation is a little wooden during her English-language scenes. Thewlis also does well as her stiff upper-lipped British husband, an equally remarkable man who is forced to bury his inner anguish because he recognises the importance of what his wife is doing for her country.
“The Lady” comes slightly undone in two areas. The first is that Besson has never been noted for his sincere and reverent style of film-making; he’s on much firmer ground delivering cool and stylized action. Here, he handles the scenes of street violence and military manoeuvring with typical verve, but certain awkwardness hangs over some of the quieter moments.
The other drawback is the rather cartoonish portrayal of the characters in the Burmese military regime. Although, undoubtedly, in the eyes of many – bad men in real-life – the way they are presented in this film makes them seem almost like Bond-style super-villains. The only thing missing is a baddie’s lair and a scowling white pussycat perched on the head honcho’s lap. A bit more nuance and depth would not have gone amiss in this department.
Overall, “The Lady” a solid and well-made biopic about a very inspirational figure. Flaws aside, it goes some way towards making sense of a senseless political situation and tries hard to present its large subject in a manageable bite. There’s a good chance that the first thing you will do after watching the film is go home and Google “Aung San Suu Kyi”. If that’s so, then the film has immediately achieved two of its worthiest goals – to educate and inspire.