French director Luc Besson has been responsible for bringing numerous dramatic adventures to the big screen centring around strong female protagoinsts battling insurmountable odds. But even for the director of NIKITA, THE MESSENGER and THE ADVENTURES OF ADELE BLANC-SEC, the true story of Burmese democratic champion Aung San Suu Kyi must have been a particularly unique challenge. For those unfamiliar with her plight, Suu Kyi was the daughter of Aung San, founder of the Burmese army, a man held in almost saintly reverence by the people after his assassination in 1947. Her mother was also a prominent political figure and became the country's ambassador to India, where Suu Kyi received her education, before attending Oxford University. By the time she returned to Burma in 1988 she was married to Dr. Michael Aris, an English professor of Tibetan culture, and they had two teenage sons. Suu Kyi was soon asked to lead the country's new democratic party and so began her lifelong battle against Burma's imposing military junta.
The film focuses on the decade between 1988, when Suu Kyi (played by Malaysian-born action star Michelle Yeoh) and her husband Michael (David Thewlis) first returned to Burma, and follows their relationship and Suu Kyi's attempts to lead Burma into democracy, up to 1999. For much of that period the couple was separated, as the cadre of Generals who ran the country did their best to break Suu Kyi's spirit. Aris was first deported and then repeatedly refused re-entry, while Suu Kyi was placed under house arrest on and off for the next 20 years. She was frequently offered the opportunity to leave the country and be reunited with her family, but Suu Kyi knew that if she was ever to leave Burma she would never be allowed to return. This put particular strain on the family when Aris was diagnosed with terminal cancer.
The greatest strength of THE LADY, so called because Aung San Suu Kyi's name is forbidden from being uttered on the streets of Rangoon or anywhere else in the country, is that it resists from focusing on the mass genicide taking place in the country, or the intricacies of Burma's politcal struggles, but instead looks at Suu Kyi as an individual. Bound by her duty to her homeland and its people, she also suffered under the pressure of isolation and separation from those she loved - especially when being told she can return to them whenever she wants, but fully aware that if she was to ever leave Burma there was no hope of being permitted to return.
Michelle Yeoh gives an incredible performance as Aung San Suu Kyi, in what may well prove to be the defining moment of her dramatic career. Not only does she look almost identical to Burma's democratic hero, but she adopts the woman's mannerisms, posture, even the way she walks, to an uncanny degree. Yeoh even manages to bust out some pretty convincing Burmese in the film. Characters for the most part speak in English, but when Suu Kyi is giving one of her famous transcribed public speeches, the language switches to the country's native tongue - in a narrative choice that may bother some viewers, but personally I felt offered an understandable compromise between authenticity and practicality.
Just as impressive is David Thewlis as Michael Aris, a man whose loyalty, dedication and selflessnes towards his wife and their relationship is every bit as moving as what Suu Kyi is fighting for on the streets of Rangoon. Aris was hardly any kind of hero himself, a doddering academic who can expertly navigate a library but fumbles around the kitchen and proves totally reliant on his wife for household matters and emotional support. Comparisons in the story can be drawn with Alexaner Payne's THE DESCENDANTS in how the largely absent patriarchs from both families are forced to step up and take charge of their domestic situations when their spouses become incapacitated. It should also be noted that Thewlis actually plays a dual role, portraying Aris' twin brother Andrew in a couple of nicely executed sequences.
It was Aris who brought Suu Kyi's struggle to the Norwegian Nobel Committee, which resulted in her winning the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize and threw a global spotlight on her work and the situation in Burma. She was unable to receive the award in person, of course, but her elder son, Alexander, gave a surprisingly moving speech in her place. Unfortunately this particular moment in the film marks the only time when either actor Jonathan Woodhouse or Jonathan Raggett, who plays younger brother Kim, brings anything positive to the film. In a production carried in large part by the strengths of its performances, the sons are horribly out of place and at times their lack of nuance or realism is extremely grating. In their defense, their parts are rather weakly written and consist of little more than the boys running and hugging their parents time and again, but they are a bum note in an otherwise immaculately played film.
THE LADY is an interesting choice for Besson, and marks the first time in his career that the prolific writer has directed somebody else's screenplay. In truth, this is a far less showy film than we have seen in his previous work, but he is clearly aware that the story itself needs no visual gimmickery to give it gravitas, although he does indulge us with some gorgeous vistas of misty Rangoon that help bring an authenticity to a film that was largely shot on-the-fly in Thailand. While the film may disappoint some in its foregrounding of the personal over the political, THE LADY never feels that it is ignoring what is going on beyond the walls of Suu Kyi's compound and the threat of violence perpetually looms over the proceedings. Besson has constructed a film that celebrates the life and work of a woman worthy of global recognition who to this day continues to fight for her country's freedom through entirely peaceful means. It is also a beautiful, fascinating and emotionally rewarding drama that proves to be inspiring, uplifting and life-affirming in a way that is impossible to ignore.
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