Viewers who go to Luc Besson’s “The Lady” anticipating something remotely similar to his last movie with a female-related title, 1990’s “La Femme Nikita,” are going to be sorely disappointed. Instead of an ass-kicking distaff action movie, what they’ll find is a stately, high-minded historical docudrama that’s long—very long—on hagiography but extremely short on energy.
The film is a paean to the courage and determination not only of Aung San Suu Kyi, whose struggle against the Burmese military junta has won her a Nobel Peace Prize and made her an international symbol of democratic aspiration against tyranny, but of her late husband Michael Aris, an Oxford don who sacrificed enormously to support her. Both Michelle Yeoh and David Thewlis give strong, secure performances as the oft-separated couple, making both their scenes together and those in which they portray the characters’ frequent times apart quite convincing, even if their habitual British self-control can be dramatically frustrating.
Structurally the picture plays it very safe. After a prologue showing the 1948 assassination of Aung San U, her father and the architect of Burmese independence, it sprints ahead to 1988, when Suu Kyi returned to her homeland from England, where she lived with Aris and their two sons, to care for her ill mother. She immediately came under scrutiny by the military regime that had come to power through a 1962 coup, and became the leader of a party dedicated to creating a democratic system and protecting human rights. That led to her being placed under house arrest in 1989, a circumstance that sporadically continued until very recently, when a policy of modest liberalization has been undertaken by the regime and her freedom of movement restored.
All of this is handled very straightforwardly in Rebecca Frayn’s script, which basically shuffles scenes of Suu Kyi and her followers struggling to cope with the government’s brutal treatment in Burma (or Myanmar, if you prefer) and others showing the trials that Aris and the two boys must endure in her absence back in England, although there are rare occasions when her family is allowed into Burma for visits. Special attention is given to the award ceremony for the Nobel Prize in 1991, where her older son gave an acceptance speech in her place (which she was barely able to hear after the regime shut off electricity to her house), and the grief she felt in 1998, when Michael fell ill with cancer and was prevented from travelling to Burma for a last visit with his wife. (She was offered the opportunity to return to England to be with him, but with the understanding that she’d not be allowed back after his death.) There are also occasional inserts depicting the inner workings of the regime; these consist mainly of sequences in which the military leader Ne Win is shown consulting a fortune-teller to decide policy, or shooting underlings who have failed him as a way of keeping others in line.
Aung San Suu Kyi’s story is obviously an inspiring one, and by placing emphasis on her political work’s impact on her domestic life “The Lady” indicates the human cost it involved. Frayn and Besson obviously have the greatest admiration for her and her family, and treat them throughout with the utmost respect. The film has also been impeccably made from a technical perspective, with Thierry Arbogast’s luminous widescreen cinematography doing full justice to both the Thai locations and the English ones and careful attention being given to the period detail. (Eric Serra’s score, on the other hand, lacks subtlety, and the periodic use of Pachelbel’s Canon gets rather soupy.)
In the end, however, while one can certainly appreciate the sincerity behind “The Lady” and the message it delivers, as a film it simply doesn’t carry the emotional wallop it should. It’s so reserved and well-mannered that it comes across as a reverential historical re-enactment rather than a vivid human drama. This is a film that may well cause you to think, but for the most part fails to make you feel.