Director Luc Besson really admires Aung San Suu Kyi. So much so that he’s diverted from his bread & butter of action/sci-fi movies to make a serious dramatic biopic about her, Myanmar’s greatest political leader and one of the most inspirational figures in world history.
You can tell just how much the French director adores her. “The Lady” is less an unbiased warts n’ all telling of her life story and more an exercise in idol worship. The film is simply too reverential, the tone too hushed in awe of its subject matter. Besson paints Suu Kyi as a living saint, and the problem with putting someone on a pedestal is that they become untouchable, unknowable. By her own admission (in the film), she is a stubborn, hot-tempered woman. We see almost none of that. Here, she is a loving wife, devoted mother, and patriotic soul. In that order.
The film spends a little too much time on the domestic side of Suu Kyi’s life. While it’s certainly heartwarming, it does little to inform us exactly why she is so dedicated to her country. This brave woman gave up a lot, sacrificing exactly that family happiness shown extensively throughout the film for the sake of Myanmar’s political future. Early on, we are given a brief insight into her tragic past, with the assassination of her father General Aung San, a noble and highly-respected leader. And Besson doesn’t shy away from depicting the atrocities meted out on the citizens by the savage military junta. Yet, the way the character is written, Suu Kyi comes across as if she coincidentally drifted into her role as champion of the people rather than it being a resolute, determined choice on her part to return democracy back to the nation.
And that’s the main issue with the Suu Kyi of this film. She’s just too passive, too reserved to make for compelling drama. Of course it’s based on what the actual person is like, so the script isn’t entirely to blame. There is also the predicament she was put in — Suu Kyi was confined to house arrest for over 15 years, to prevent her from exerting influence on her people. So other than winning the Nobel Peace Prize, nothing much of consequence or urgency really happened to her during this period. Which is why it was all more necessary for Besson and his writer Rebecca Frayn to really get under the skin of this person. In the absence of her father, how did her relationship with her husband, Oxford scholar Michael Aris, affect her political psyche and aspirations? It must have, since the film plays out like a love story for the better part of the running time. And yet, in the end, her love for her country took precedence. If you’re looking for a deeper understanding of Aung San Suu Kyi, you won’t find it here.
Thank goodness then, for the leads. They’re the film’s saving grace. This is without a doubt Michelle Yeoh’s show. She gives a sterling, career-best performance, one that perfectly captures the elegance, poise and compassion of Suu Kyi. Stuck with a script that lacks depth, she turns to an actor’s other fallback: the physical performance. From the character’s gentle, fluid body language right down to her unusual hand wave, Yeoh nails it. Spot on. My only complaint is that she cries way too often, but I’d blame Besson’s direction for that. David Thewlis (as Michael Aris) is the other standout. He lends strong support in a performance that’s unshowy but no less commanding. Their scenes together are the true heart of the film.
The quality of Yeoh’s acting might come as a pleasant surprise to audiences who know her only through her chop-socky action movie roles. As a fellow Malaysian, I can’t help but feel a certain sense of pride that one of our own has done so well, even though the film surrounding her doesn’t quite match up to the lofty standards she set. Especially the local Burmese cast, some of whom unfortunately provide unintentional laughs with their terrible non-acting. As a geek aside, I was amused to see Maung Maung Khin, the villain from 2008’s “Rambo” pretty much repeat himself as an army nasty here, and who once again meets a violent end. LOL moment.
Otherwise, on a technical level “The Lady” is well made. The cinematography is a particular delight, with Thierry Arbogast frequently lighting the landscapes and people with a gorgeously warm, romantic glow. If not for all the ugly genocide stuff, this would make a great Myanmar Tourism promo. Shooting on location (in and around Thailand), and featuring real ethnic tribes also gives the film a more authentic look and feel.
It’s too bad then, that Besson chose to play so safe with his title character. In some ways, the Suu Kyi we’re presented with feels like the least convincing part of the story. As if there’s something the filmmakers don’t want us to know about her. Or couldn’t quite figure out how to convey onscreen. The ending is a glaring example of this. It just ends, with no definite point having been made. Although at the time the film was shot, Suu Kyi’s party had not yet gone on win the leadership of the country (which happened in April this year), surely there could’ve been some other dramatically or thematically satisfying way of wrapping up this biopic.
“The Lady” is worth a watch, if only for the great lead performances and impressive production values. As a look into the life of an important figure, it falters. It’s too generic and on-the-surface to count as anything more than a glossy PR piece.
Ironically, after 2 decades of imprisonment, to a global audience Aung San Suu Kyi remains as hidden as before.