Saturday, April 7, 2012

The Lady

A Love Letter To A Real-Life Freedom Fighter In Burma

Michelle Yoah as political dissident and freedom fighter Aung San Suu Kyi in Luc Besson's "The Lady". 
Magali Bragard


Omar P.L. Moore/        Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW                                           
Saturday, April 7
, 2012

Luc Besson's "The Lady", which opens next weekend in the U.S. and Canada, functions much more as a love story than a chronicle of freedom fighter Aung San Suu Kyi and her political struggles against the bloodthirsty military junta that ruled and murdered with an iron fist for decades in Burma.  The drama is based on many interviews with Suu Kyi's confidants, yet overall it lacks substance and feels like a lavish, hollow spectacle of entertainment.

Michelle Yeoh portrays Burmese-born Suu Kyi, capturing some of the latter's essence if not her gravitas and strength, but it's David Thewlis, in a fine if acutely mannered performance as the writer Michael Aris, Suu Kyi's British husband.  Their relationship is the core of Mr. Besson's film, and for some (like myself), the fact that "The Lady" (which should have been re-titled "The Lady And The Gentleman") focuses mostly on the couple and their family as they evolve over time amidst the title character's protracted fight for democracy and liberation for the Burmese appears to cheapen and trivialize, if not misrepresent Aung San Suu Kyi -- even if the depiction of her and Michael's devoted love for each other is entirely accurate. 

Throughout "The Lady" the camera gives us subtle and not-so-subtle winks and nods at Michael, who winks and nods back.  He is often more a center of the film than Ms. Yeoh's character is.  We are constantly reminded of his presence.  It's an excessively distracting device that pulls you out of the story, and not least the brave, bold struggle of Suu Kyi, who was placed under house arrest in the 1980s and served 15 years of that sentence over a 20-year-period.  (Aung San Suu Kyi was released in 2010.  Last week she won a seat for her political party in the Burmese parliament in the country's by-election.)

Like John Woo, Mr. Besson is a master of conjuring emotional resonance amidst violent theater, particularly in his big screen heroines ("La Femme Nikita", "The Professional"), doing so on an operatic scale.  He cultivates a canvas of cruel military violence and oppression of the Burmese people with blood-splattered scenes.  Only on sporadic occasions do we glimpse or learn the political philosophies of Aung San Suu Kyi, and these are presented in filler moments if not throwaway ones isolated and disconnected from the film in general.  The Burmese military, as brutal as they were, are presented at times as a comedic punchline, caricatured for the audience rather than feared.

There are several wrinkles in Rebecca Frayn's screenplay, written over three years.  Ms. Yeoh portrays Suu Kyi as a dignified, calm and patient figure of nobility.  Yet there's a line she speaks towards the end of the film which contradicts the patience and discipline Ms. Yeoh gives her.  "I'm not a patient person...", she says in part as she speaks to her husband.  It's bewildering and comical -- and it's not meant to be.  Earlier in "The Lady", Ms. Yeoh's character says to authorities, "I'll stay (in Burma) for however long I choose."  I understand the context, but still, the lines spoken betray the character to an extent.  At the risk of lawyering and semantic trifling here, "however long" doesn't signal patience, even if it personifies Suu Kyi's unwavering commitment to justice.  Regrettably Mr. Besson gives Suu Kyi surface treatment where the character's political machinations are concerned.  Sometimes Ms. Yeoh does as well.  There's a cutesy fuddy-duddiness about Mr. Thewlis's portrayal that, as gentle as it is, becomes tiresome.

I feel that there was a calculation on the filmmaker's part to deemphasize politics in order to craft a broader, universal love story as a source of audience identification.  Indeed, again, the love story -- a poignant and sweet one pulsing with genuine affection -- is the endearing heart of "The Lady", a film arguably seen from Michael's point of view.  Yet in romanticizing Aung San Suu Kyi for the big screen Mr. Besson underestimates the knowledge of and worldwide admiration for a towering figure who has non-violently achieved justice amidst violence in the same self-sacrificing way that two giant 20th century figures -- Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi -- did.  While watching "The Lady" I never once felt the core of this inspirational lady, and Mr. Besson's film, which runs well over two hours, never delivers anything close to it.

Originally rumored for a late 2011 release for Academy Awards contention but pulled back, "The Lady", shown at the Mill Valley International Film Festival last October with Ms. Yeoh and Mr. Besson in attendance, could and should have been a far better film, even with its centerpiece love story.  "The Lady" misses a golden opportunity to entertain, engage and inform, wasting good performances by Ms. Yeoh and Mr. Thewlis.  It's too bad.  The potential was there, as are the sincere intentions, but the effort and endeavor are wanting.

With: Jonathan Raggett, Jonathan Woodhouse, Susan Wooldridge, Benedict Wong.

"The Lady" is rated R by the Motion Picture Association Of America for violence including some bloody images.  The film has occasional English language subtitles.  The film's running time is two hours and 12 minutes.

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