Review: The Lady
PLOT: The story of Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese politician and fierce opponent of the country's military dictatorship, who spent over a decade under house arrest as a political prisoner while standing up for her people's rights.
REVIEW: When you hear about a movie called THE LADY directed by Luc Besson and starring Michelle Yeoh, images of an ass-kicking female assassin or revenge-seeker are likely conjured in your mind. After all, this is the guy who introduced us to Le Femme Nikita, after all, as well as the deadly gibberish-spouting sprite Leeloo in THE FIFTH ELEMENT. Yeoh, on the other hand, is still one of the most famous action stars in the world, having plied her trade as a force to be reckoned with for many years in China before becoming internationally well-known thanks to roles in TOMORROW NEVER DIES and CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON. Combined, Besson and Yeoh would likely find two dozen ways to beat the living daylights out of you.
But THE LADY isn't that. This is Besson's message movie; a biopic of a Burmese woman who spent all-too-many years as a political prisoner in her own country for opposing the strong-armed rule of its fascist government. With all the makings of a passion project, THE LADY is a sincere, non-glossy picture that has as many quiet, introspective moments as the films we associate Besson with have explosions and face-beatings.
As a child, Aung San Suu Kyi saw her father, a politician for the people of Burma, gunned down during the uprising of a military that asserts brutal control of the country. Flashing forward, we see that she ultimately moves to England and settles down with an amiable British professor (David Thewlis) and builds a happy life there, forging a family and easy-going existence. But when her mother falls ill, she must return to Burma, where once again she is faced with the extreme oppression of the citizens by a pitiless regime. Consequently, once she's in the country (where she only plans to reside for a week), she's looked at as a potential savior by the Burmese youth and revolutionaries, who hope she'll take up where her father left off several years ago. Similarly, the government pictures her as the potential new face of the people's movement, but hesitates to have her killed because she'll naturally become a martyr for the democratic cause.
Kyi does not have to be swayed too heavily to become an active participant in the fray. She quickly transforms her home into a meeting place for students looking to bring about change, and not long after, she becomes a celebrity and symbol for democracy. Eventually, she becomes a politician, beating the General at the head of the military by a massive margin. Not that he takes it in stride. Kyi is made a prisoner in her own house, as the army forms an outpost by her front gate and keeps her hidden away... for well over a decade.
There's almost too much detail to go into; that's just a partial summary of Kyi's life and THE LADY's telling of it. Indeed, the film has the same issue – it can't easily detail all of her extraordinary accomplishments and imposing tribulations, so while it admirably attempts to get the entire history up on the screen, there's a “check-list” presentation that some biopics suffer from. Hunger strike? Check. Campaign for the Nobel Peace Prize? Check. The random visit from her family? Check. We see the events dutifully dramatized, but their weight is not always felt.
It could be that Besson is a bit over-matched by the material. The director falls back on exposition and heartstring-pulling tactics, often making the story feel watered down. It's a challenge to tell the story of someone's life in a little over two hours, no question, but Besson might have delegated the directing to someone with a more powerful grasp in the genre to nail THE LADY's fascinating and important subject. As it is, Besson has trouble bringing such a monumental true tale to life.
One can't complain about things like period detail and atmosphere, however. There's no doubt that Besson and his team have worked very hard to get everything right about the multiple time-periods THE LADY spans; the costumes, art direction, cinematography are all top-notch. While not displaying anything flashy here, Besson is elegant in his shooting style; he remains an artist with a strong vision.
It must be said that Besson's masterstroke is the casting of Yeoh, who gives a breathtaking performance; she's certainly achieves the unique mixture of quiet dignity and rigid stubbornness that makes Kyi such a fascinating individual. THE LADY as a whole may not be the film that gives this remarkable person her full due, but Yeoh proves that she is indeed the right woman for the job.