@moviejay’s Review of The Lady
“The Lady” will introduce Aung San Suu Kyi (pronounced Ung-Sun-Soo-Chee) to a Western audience that is still mostly unfamiliar with her name. Unless you’re an avid follower of international politics or a college student, I fear her story is one that may not have found you yet. It’s really something you have to have been looking for because it sure isn’t a story that anybody in North America was trying especially hard to bring to us in these times of the 24-hour news cycle where Suu Kyi and the problems of Burma have been mostly relegated as sidebar pieces.
Her father, Aung San, had been elected to lead Burma, a country that borders India. Like India, Burma (now also going by the name Myanmar) had been a longtime British colony. The English stayed there long enough to do everything except, I suppose, instill upon the Burmese any sense of how democracy works including the aspect of minority rights for the party or the faction that loses. Soon after his election to office, Suu Kyi’s father was assassinated by military leaders. Civilian strife ensued with a military junta taking hold of power for decades afterwards with the young Suu Kyi fleeing her home country for England where she studied and met her future husband, Michael Aris (David Thewlis), at Oxford.
While Burma became one of the world’s most secretive and oppressive regimes, Suu Kyi led a peaceful life in England with Michael, giving birth to two sons. Just over 20 years ago, Suu Kyi ended up back in Burma upon the news of her mother’s failing health, and that is essentially where this movie begins. When she arrives in Burma, she’s asked by customs officials how long she’ll be staying. “As long as I need to”, she responds, words that are heard by officials who instantly recognize the name and pass this information along to their superiors.
It’s a tumultuous time in Burma made more so to the powers-that-be that the daughter of a martyr has returned. It’s not long before protesting students hear that Suu Kyi is in the homeland that they seek her out in a desperate attempt to bring her on board in the country’s opposition faction called the National League of Democracy. Soon after, Michael and the two boys fly to Burma on a visit that is cut short when the turmoil begins. After having sent the boys back to England fearing harm, the military powers invalidate Michael’s visa and whisk him back out of the country while Suu Kyi stays with her dying mother.
The NLD brings Suu Kyi to meet the Burmese people in the neighborhoods both rural and central where they live and although she admits that she is not a trained politico, she helps to affirm for her people the values of democracy and human rights that ought to be afforded to all people. Swept up as the heiress to her father’s legacy, Suu Kyi decides, against the suggestions of the General that she leave, to stay on long enough to oversee the country’s elections.
The NLD, back at the turn of the 90′s, took over 80% of the vote. The victory for Suu Kyi was short lived however, as the military brass kept her under house arrest for the next two decades until her release and then subsequent electoral victory back into parliament only just recently.
Aung San Suu Kyi’s story is as important as that of Gandhi or Nelson Mandela. Until last year, she was the only living Nobel Peace Prize winner under military arrest. The steps that Burma has taken over the last year, including a warming relationship with the United States, (aided by a special visit by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton), make the facts of this story a total inspiration to our common humanity. It’s just too bad that the movie doesn’t ever really step up to the plate and deliver anything more than a remedial history lesson.
I’d like to say that Michelle Yeoh as Suu Kyi is the centerpiece of the film, but I found that the movie takes the wrong entry approach into the material. There’s nothing wrong with her performance, in fact Yeoh embodies the image of Suu Kyi in a very uncanny way. It’s just that the movie sees her through her husband in England and it sees her from the POV of the military folks as well as the Burmese people, but it never imagines itself as being from Suu Kyi’s perspective. That’s probably because this film is based off a book by Rebecca Frayn that is culled from interviews about Suu Kyi, but never of Suu Kyi herself, and in “The Lady”, it shows.
The movie becomes too much about the devotion of her husband (who died of cancer while she was under house arrest all those years) and about ticking off Wikipedia entries into the historical details of this story that it never takes the time to breathe. To consider Suu Kyi as a person. To get inside her head. To allow for any kind of contemplation. To treat Suu Kyi and Burma as the centerpiece, and not the husband/wife stuff.
Luc Besson has a history of doing some nice action and sci-fi work, and with “The Lady” I believe he wanted to step away from that and do something more personal and more universal, which is fine and good except that I found him suffering within the trappings of the biopic genre where a filmmaker becomes more concerned about getting facts checked off the list than in making a movie that actually jumps off the screen to make a real impact.
Gandhi and Suu Kyi are on equal footing as figures who stood for human rights, except the former got a great movie while the other got one that is a competent history lesson, but not much more than that.
The Lady **½