The true story on which the movie is based–Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese daughter of a slain president, known as “the steel orchid,” who fights for her people against a repressive regime, which places her under house arrest for 15 years after she is elected president–offered Yeoh a character she not only closely resembled, but was aching to play. “You can feel the vibration: ‘this is my time, I want this part,'” says Besson. “For an Asian actress, there aren’t so many parts.”
(My interviews with Besson and Yeoh and the teaser trailer are below.)
But Besson had not known the depth of the drama of Dr. Suu Kyi’s relationship with her British academic husband Michael Aris (David Thewlis) and two sons, from whom she was kept apart for years at a time, even when her beloved husband was fighting cancer. As soon as Besson read British filmmaker/novelist Rebecca Frayn’s screenplay for The Lady, he moved to direct it himself, scouting locations in Thailand, where he recreated Suu Kyi’s Rangoon family compound and hired all Burmese refugee non-pros to play the supporting roles: there is no Burmese film industry.
The film begins during the Burmese student protests of the 80s and runs through through Suu Kyi’s release in 2010–which was announced on television during the filming, as Besson and Yeoh both watched a scene that could have been come from the film. Yeoh visited Burma and Suu Kyi once, before publicity about the filming got out; the second time she went she was detained at the airport and not allowed to enter the country. Besson shot the film in Thailand in warm red light, and the parallel story in England in cold blue light. “It was one of the most beautiful love stories I have ever read,” Besson says. “I am so lucky to be free, able to read a script and cry and fall in love at the end and say I want to do it. The movie is about freedom. Of the 128 ethnic groups in Burma, almost 50 are being massacred by the military and nobody knows it, nobody can do anything.”
This historic love story is compelling, emotionally moving, romantic, upsetting. UPDATE: Besson trimmed the film after Toronto from 143 to 127 minutes.
“[A] well-intentioned but pedestrian retelling of a stirring true story,..With wooden dialogue and little sense of narrative economy, the overlong film trudges through decades of turbulent recent history via an approach that’s part old-fashioned miniseries and part simplistic after-school special,..The shocking injustices of the true story inevitably make it touch chords, but the emotional moments that resonate most stem from Thewlis’ tender depiction of Michael’s unwavering devotion and tireless campaigning on his wife’s behalf. Yeoh radiates regality, poise, compassion and quiet conviction, but never generates much of a charge.”
“[It] lacks passion and depth, leaving nothing more than a kitchen sink drama,..it would struggle to pass muster as a TV biopic. The dialogue is flat, the performances creaky and, in the wake of George Clooney’s much more sophisticated The Ides of March, its depiction of the political world borders on cartoonish,..This should be a dynamic film about a dynamic couple; instead, it might as well be titled Aung San Suu Kyi: Housewife Superstar.”