If there’s one thing that Luc Besson proved with “The Messenger,” it’s that his melodramatic, spectacle-laden sensibility is not particularly well-suited to serious or credible stories. Nevertheless, the director mostly abets himself of making the same mistakes twice with “The Lady,” a poignant if underwhelming portrait of Aung San Suu Kyi, a Burmese expat who became a pro-democracy activist in the late 1980s, as Rangoon struggled under the tyranny of a totalitarian military regime. Aided by terrific performances by David Thewlis and especially Michelle Yeoh as Suu Kyi, Besson’s “The Lady” is a glossy prestige picture that’s appropriately inspiring, but some may find its stiff-lipped nobility slightly too bloodless to leave a lasting impression.
Born in 1945, Suu Kyi was the daughter of Burmese royalty; her father Aung San founded the Burmese army in 1947 before being assassinated by his rivals. Raised in Rangoon but educated internationally, she cultivated a strong sense of social and political awareness from both her mother and father, while marrying Dr. Michael Aris (Thewlis) and raising two sons with him in London. In 1988, she returned to Burma to care for her sick mother; simultaneously, the leader of the ruling party, General Ne Win, stepped down, and the people asked her to represent a movement towards democracy. Although the first election resulted in a landslide victory for the National League of Democracy, Ne Win refused to honor the results, and placed Suu Kyi under house arrest for 15 of the next 21 years.
As Suu Kyi attempts to stay true to principles of democracy and non-violence, Ne Win and his successors continue to put pressure on her, regularly raiding her home, and confiscating any materials that she might use to promote democracy. But when the government refuses to allow her to see her husband and children – even when Michael becomes terminally ill – Suu Kyi is forced to choose between her family and her country.
Without a doubt, the best reason to watch “The Lady” is Michelle Yeoh’s performance in the title role. While as a person – much less a character – Suu Kyi exudes steadfast commitment and nobility, Yeoh elevates her modesty and her resoluteness to dimensions that we can actually care about. It’s certainly to the film’s benefit that the subject matter inspires automatic outrage, but Yeoh is our anchor to something specific and relatable. Meanwhile, Thewlis contributes his usual gravitas as her endlessly patient husband, and makes the most out of less than imaginative lines like, “If they think they’re going to scare me, then they’ve got another think coming!” His part in the film is atypically the less showy one, but he gets inside the cardigan-clad academic husband and makes him Suu Kyi’s equal, even if it’s occasionally tough to figure out whether he’s bored as an actor, or merely laid back as a character.
Despite its comparatively more grounded subject matter – at least to those who know him best for “The Professional” and “The Fifth Element” – “The Lady” still falls squarely in Besson’s wheelhouse, presenting a female protagonist who overcomes the adversity of tyrannical men (though in this case there’s an actual tyrant). But the material nevertheless still feels like an odd fit for the fantasist and action-movie purveyor, because there’s a restraint in the storytelling and directing that doesn’t seems to come naturally. Besson accurately portrays Suu Kyi’s non-violent approach to promoting democracy, but he seems unsure how to handle scenes where soldiers rush in and for one reason or another, don’t shoot everyone in sight. And though he certainly doesn’t delight in the scenes of violence perpetrated on the Burmese people by Ne Win’s regime, you do get a sense in them of Besson’s creativity running a little more freely when the villains are allowed to be more monstrous or one-dimensional.
Otherwise, the film feels flatter than it probably should given the subject matter, but even if it’s relatively accurate, one imagines that Suu Kyi and her family’s lives were probably a lot like they are shown in the film – long stretches of inactivity, rejection and longing, punctuated by either violence, or less often, relief. (That said, it’s still not clear why Besson felt compelled to include a small handful of scenes in which Thewlis plays both Michael and his identical twin brother Anthony, expect perhaps to show audiences how seamlessly he could pull off the technical feat of doing so.) Ultimately, the prestige picture is a respectable effort from Besson, and certainly serves as evidence that good or bad, his films have been sorely missed in Hollywood since he returned to France to create his empire of action films and family adventures. But like his choice of song for the closing credits, Sade’s “Soldier of Love,” “The Lady” manages to be both boring in its predictability and overestimate the emotional connections it created in its telling, leaving audiences with a clearer sense of Burmese history, but too much bureaucracy for them to care deeply about it. [B-]