The Lady is based on real events. It’s a heartbreaking love story within a political epic, but in the shaky hands of director Luc Besson — who is best known for action films such as The Taken and The Professional — it fails to fully satisfy as either. The romance between the leading characters — one that sacrifices itself for a greater purpose — is too undeveloped on an emotional level, and the historical saga is too quiet, too plodding (132 minutes in all, albeit a nonlinear recounting) and too safe.
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Much of the film’s story of the 21st century democracy movement in Burma is told in flashback, beginning in the late 1940s when the pro-independence general Aung Sun is assassinated. His only daughter, Aung San Suu Kyi, played by the exquisitely talented Michelle Yeoh (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), subsequently marries Oxford Asian Studies expert Michael Aris (British character actor David Thewlis), and the couple are living in England with their two young boys when Suu Kyi is beckoned back to Rangoon to her mother’s deathbed in 1988.
There, she comes to embrace her legacy as the nonviolent protest leader of the National League for Democracy (NLD). But when her party wins the 1990 election in a landslide, the ruling military junta refuses to cede power and places Suu Kyi under house arrest for the next 21 years, refusing to let her husband — even after he is diagnosed with terminal prostate cancer in the late 1990s — and her children visit. In one very chilling scene, a Burmese army leader tells Suu Kyi that she is free to leave her country, though it is clear that if she does she will be denied re-entry. “What kind of freedom is that,” Suu Kyi responds quietly, “a freedom to choose either family or country?”
In the years between her departure from England and her husband’s death, Suu Kyi and Aris managed to see each other only five times. What an excruciating decision for a couple devoted and supportive of each other to make — not to mention the impact that had on their children. Yet, we get inside little of this family’s psychic pain, and that’s not because neither Yeoh nor Thewlis were incapable of conveying it, but because Besson and scriptwriter Rebecca Frayn (mostly known for television work including Whose Baby?) focused instead on the tedious legal details of the international effort to win Suu Kyi’s release from house arrest and unrestricted visitation by her family.
The Lady does succeeds as a basic educational vehicle, although, when Suu Kyi won the Nobel Peace Price in 1991, much of the world became aware of the political struggle taking place in Burma. And recent events there, including Suu Kyi’s release from arrest, the ruling junta’s dissolution, and her party’s success in winning 40 of 45 parliamentary seats earlier this month, dramatically overtake the timeline covered in the film.
Still it’s lovely to watch Yeoh command a leading role, and to succeed exquisitely in channeling Suu Kyi. Equally beautiful is The Lady’s cinematography. Thailand mostly fills in for Burma, and the landscape — from gritty streets to steamy jungles every shade of gray — lend life to the film that’s otherwise lacking.