Film Review – The Lady
Human beings can really suck sometimes. In the case of Burma (also known as Myanmar), there are a lot of human beings that suck really badly. Unfortunately, they’re the ones in charge. Since the military took control in a coup in 1962, Burma has been under the military’s full lock and key. It also has one of the highest and worst counts of human rights violations in the world. Since 1988, Aung San Suu Kyi has been one of the loudest and most important figures in the opposition to Burma’s military rule. In director Luc Besson’s latest film, she is the center of the subject matter. The movie is a biopic that follows her life from a young age, when her father was assassinated for opposing the military rule, to her return to Burma in 1988, when she was approached to lead a new political movement against the military, through her time in house arrest for 15 years.
Biopics are a strange genre of film. There has to automatically be a level of fiction applied in order to structure the story to typically classic three-act form of introduction, problem, and resolution. In most cases, events are reorganized in order to best suit the needs of the appropriate highs and lows the film makers want the audience to experience. For example, in Milos Forman’s Man in the Moon, Andy Kaufman is diagnosed with cancer, and in the face of his own mortality decides to treat his audiences to something extra special at his shows: milk and cookies. In actuality, Kaufman had made the milk and cookies bit a part of his act long before he was diagnosed with cancer. But it makes for a much more dramatic story if it’s told in such a redemptive order. The same problematic restructuring of timelines can probably be found in the finer points of The Lady.
It is an unusual and somehow fitting combination that Luc Besson would end up directing such a film. Best known for his action fare, especially in the last decade, in which he’s produced countless bullet-tossing, ass-kicking endeavors such as Kiss of the Dragon, The Transporter series, Taken and others, Luc Besson would not have been the first person I’d tap to helm such a story as Aung San Suu Kyi’s. However, his action-influenced approach makes a story which largely takes place during the protagonist’s house arrest seem a little livelier (though the film does feel a little bulky and would have benefited from some trimming). To address those pesky structural problems of biopics, Besson does what he does best, empowering the film’s villains in a stylized manner traditional to the action film genre. Unfortunately, with hip music and low camera angles, the coolness of the villains and their violent deeds belittle the real tragedy that occurred to the real people who were killed.
Despite the revisionism, Besson does deliver all the appropriate goods at the appropriate times. And more pointedly, this film does bring an awareness about the plight of the Burmese people on a mass scale, to an audience that probably knows or has previously cared little for Burma’s political situation. That, of course, is a good thing. The film also has some very good casting in its lead roles. Michelle Yeoh plays Aung San Suu Kyi, in perhaps her best acting role (aside from maybe Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), and David Thewlis does an on-point job playing her husband Michael Aris. It was entirely refreshing to see Michelle Yeoh not actually kicking ass for a change; however, I kept thinking that the whole situation would be easily solved if she just kung-fu’d her way out of house arrest and into Parliament.
At 132 minutes in length, The Lady reaches a point of near-exhaustion when it begins to focus on the family aspects of Suu Kyi’s house arrest and her dedication to her country’s cause. With little moments of violence left to pull from, the film becomes bogged down; we begin feeling a sense of oppressiveness ourselves, especially in the drawn-out moments of sacrifice Suu Kyi and her family must make for her work to pay off. The Lady certainly feels like a film that should be more commercially successful than it probably will be. But some audiences craving some realistic melodrama before the summer season of super-heroes and aliens will probably find themselves at a multiplex, learning about the reorganized history of the leader of Burma’s National League for Democracy party.