REVIEW: The Lady Flubs Its Chance to Tell the Story of Aung San Suu Kyi
There's something immobile at the center of The Lady, a kind of Botoxed biopic with an unlikely director -- Luc Besson -- manning the syringe. Technically, that something is the figure of Aung San Suu Kyi: Here the Burmese activist is played by Michelle Yeoh, who gets the already wearisome Shepard Fairey treatment on the film's poster, and seems to have attended the special edition stamp school of acting in preparation for the role. Almost to a scene, Yeoh is so still and serene she's practically submerged, her dialogue seeming to rise like beatific air bubbles that burst into tiny, untroubled smiles at the surface. Rather than ripple out -- and risk the suggestion of any small mercy of movement whatever -- Yeoh's performance forms a kind of undertow that pulls the surrounding story and characters into the hagiographic shallows, where they float like sea monkeys with better set dressing, blooping away about Burmese democracy.
Besson begins The Lady with an X-ray of the origin story that opens his last producing project, Colombiana: A young girl bidding farewell to her about-to-be martyred father. Here it is Suu Kyi being kissed good-bye in 1947 by her dad, Burma's interim prime minister and founder of its independent army, before he is killed in a coup. From there we move to Oxford in 1998, where Suu Kyi's husband, Michael (David Thewlis), has just been diagnosed with terminal prostate cancer. Michael's twin brother (also Thewlis) shows up to offer some words of comfort, and we learn that his wife has been stuck in Burma for almost a decade, and he hasn't seen her in three years.
This little info drop is the first of several pieces of rather pressing news that are revealed, if not dully, then with a distinct lack of dramatic horse sense. Suu Kyi's story is worthy of Puccini, which is its own challenge, but The Lady lays its cards down so casually that it would be easy to assume that anyone might interrupt an urgent personal visit from England home to Burma -- as Suu Kyi does during a subsequent flashback to 1988 -- to give a game-changing speech at a massive political rally for peace, or that receiving a Nobel Prize is as easy as buttering up an insider at an academic cocktail party. From that 1988 trip, the story of Suu Kyi's conversion to homeland activism takes over, but our sense of Burma's political climate remains murky and malleable. Elections and sentencings happen without any real sense of what's at stake, beyond the dictatorial gamesmanship of the country's military junta, led by a cigarette-sucking cartoon of General Ne Win (Htun Lin).
Much of what follows alternates between scenes of Suu Kyi -- who transitions seamlessly from Oxford housewife with a writing habit to saintly figurehead who is never less than fully turned out in elegant silks with flowers tucked into her hair -- inspiring the people with stump speeches for peace, and the General's fist-shaking schemes to detain her. Detain he does, with years-long house arrests, periods that for reasons that are poorly understood continue despite the fact that Suu Kyi wins a 1990 election by a landslide. Her family -- Thewlis and two teenage sons played by Jonathan Raggett and Jonathan Woodhouse -- are allowed to visit intermittently, but even when she's free, Suu Kyi vows not to leave Burma, knowing she would not be permitted to return.
What is actually accomplished by this vow is frozen, like the rest of The Lady, inside of Suu Kyi's Mona Lisa smile. When Besson presses on the romantic drama of the central couple's separation, the script (written by Rebecca Frayn) tatters under the strain: Thewlis is neutered into a piece of tweedy furniture -- constant, supportive, there -- who says things like, "If they think I'm going to take this lying down they've got another thing coming!" and "Another refusal, and all the while time slipping through my fingers!" Suu Kyi says she has a terrible temper but endures her mother's death, her family's absence, and a hunger strike with the same temperate, monsoon-proof expression.
Given The Lady's Teflon, cinema-of-quality surface (the odd vernal, Asiatic vista is thrown in for variety) and almost childishly palatable contents (triple-blended for global smoothness), the film's two organic moments feel miraculous. The first illustrates the translation of Suu Kyi's heated standoff with the militia into myth as it is pantomimed across Rangoon in a brief, brilliant montage. The second is much (muuuuch) further on, as Suu Kyi shares in her Nobel Prize ceremony by transistor radio, an award her family accepts in her stead in an unexpectedly lyrical sequence. Knowing that it's still possible to breathe life into Pachelbel's Canon only enhances the sense that the rest of this somnolent hymn to a national hero is a sorely missed opportunity.
[Editor's note: This review originally appeared in December 2011, when The Lady received a limited release.]
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