Synopsis: The true story of Burmese pro-democracy activist, leader and political prisoner Aung San Suu Kyi (Michelle Yeoh) and the long-distance bond she maintained with her British husband, Michael Aris (David Thewlis), while under house arrest for over a decade.
A comic book-like look at a complicated political figure.
Luc Besson, director of Leon, The Fifth Element, and Nikita, is a master of cinematic mayhem and a bit of a crazy romantic (directorially speaking). His movies are famous for their baroque style and violence and an unapologetic air of emotional delirium; if movies were censored for sentimentality his entire oeuvre would be banned outright. His characters are often caught up in an impossible dream where their longings are realised in a blaze of self-sacrifice. He’s a supreme cinematic fantasist and he starts off The Lady, a strange and earnest bio-pic on Burmese democracy activist and 1991 Nobel Peace Prize recipient Aung San Suu Kyi, with a prologue that seems part-storybook, part-creation myth.
It is 1947. A three-year-old Suu is enjoying an afternoon in the sun in a pretty garden setting, and the image, all warm and glowing, promises fabulous things. As her dad, General Aung San tells Suu of the ‘old Burma’, Besson cuts away to a series of shots that form a pageant of the country; tigers lording it over the jungle, elephants on the plains, and a sky so beautiful it seems, well, unreal, which is sort of the point. Moments later, Aung San lies dead, killed by his political opponents. (One of several horrific and bloody moments of action that punctuates the film’s otherwise stately and talky atmosphere.) We never again in the film see Burma as a place of beauty; instead, it’s a site of terror, conspiracy and death. Its only hope lay in the beatific, dignified countenance of the grown up Suu (played by the great Michelle Yeoh).
The film’s narrative, from a screenplay by Rebecca Frayn, is a dry checklist of well-known facts. By the late ‘80s Suu is living in England and married to Oxford academic Michael (David Thewlis) with two teenage sons, Kim (Jonathan Raggett) and Alex (Jonathan Woodhouse). When her mother takes ill, Suu returns to Burma and finds the place torn up by riots; the country’s tyrannical military regime seems in a rage over insurgents. Meanwhile, democratic dissidents persuade Suu to play a leadership role; a scene that leads to one of many cringe-inducing moments in the film. At first declining the opportunity, Suu explains gently that she’s “not qualified” for politics. She may well have said it (I don’t know), but the line suggests that the screen version of Suu is dimly unaware of the symbolic value of her own history. Sadly, it’s typical of a script that’s evasive, naïve and frankly condescending when it comes to expressing how politics functions, personally and practically. For smart, driven, committed people, the cast of idealists here seem, well, a bit amazed in the face of a decadent and cruel dictatorship. Still, Besson adopts a comic book-like tone when it comes to the film’s ‘villains’ (and that’s a label I don't use lightly; I’m just trying to capture the trivialising way Besson uses in depicting them).
Gen. Ne Win (Htun Lin), presented as a superstitious, murderous goof obsessed with the power of numerology, elects to neuter the democratic movement by imprisoning the leadership and keeping Suu under house arrest. At this point, the film is split between Michael’s efforts in Europe and England to have Suu’s efforts recognised diplomatically and politically, and Suu’s house arrest in Burma, which amounts to Suu looking serenely calm in the face of constant bullying and harassment, a disposition she maintains (as the film would have it) for 15 years.
In a sense, Yeoh’s is a thankless role; Besson has her play Suu as a kind of saint, which seems an odd approach, since throughout, she seems, as a character, this remote figure not so much a flesh and blood human, but a screen presence embodying an ideal. For that matter, Thewlis is pretty much a saint, too; he suffers the pressures of separation and (a feeling of powerlessness and loss) with a quivering stiff upper lip and a lot of lofty talk about fights worth having. Late in the film, the pair have a reunion and Suu thanks her husband for what she calls his ‘indulgence’ and lists her faults, including a bad temper and impatience. The scene doesn’t ring true simply because we’ve never seen Suu be anything but sweet and dignified.
By the time this long and slow film hits the 100-minute mark, the movie has devolved into long distance love affair between husband and wife, and the agony hits critical mass when it’s revealed that Michael has incurable cancer. It’s here that the film finally finds a bit of emotional heft; Suu faces a terrible choice and Besson shoots these scenes in lavish close up and, for once, I got a sense of the terrible pain the real life characters must have endured.
On 1st April this year Suu Kyi was elected as a member of the National League of Democracy to the lower house of Burma’s parliament. But that real life drama doesn’t turn out to be good timing for this movie; it’s a toothless historical pantomime, where all sense of politics is reduced to sanctimonious sloganeering.
Watch Films Online
Films on SBS TV
SBS Film Guide to...
Celebrate Australian filmmaking with this home-grown season. Starts May 25.
A month of movies with an edge. Saturday nights in April.