Notes from the underground: The Lady **

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 14, 2012)

On a recent trip to Myanmar, Secretary of State Clinton publicly expressed her admiration for Burmese political activist Aung San Suu Kyi, acknowledging her long personal struggle (including 15 years of house arrest) as head of an opposition party that has been (peacefully) attempting to bring democracy to a country that has been under oppressive military rule for 50 years.

Some encouraging news emerged earlier this month, with Suu Kyi and other members of her party winning 43 out of 45 seats in the lower house of the parliament. Indeed, Suu Kyi’s story is an extraordinary one (and which one hopes is far from over). That’s why it’s a shame that Luc Besson’s biopic, The Lady, while timely in its release, can only be described as “ordinary” in its execution. It’s a largely uninspired affair that starts off like Gandhi…but ends up more like Camille.

The film begins promisingly, with a beautifully constructed and emotionally affecting preface. It’s 1947, and the nation later to be called Myanmar is still known to the world as Burma. We see 3-year old Suu Kyi kissing her father, General Aung San, goodbye before he heads off to a fateful political meeting, where he is assassinated (General Aung San is now honored as that nation’s “Father” for his key role in helping gain independence from British colonial rule).

The next time we see Suu Kyi (Michelle Yeoh), she is an adult, living in England with her husband, Oxford academic Dr. Michael Aris (David Thewlis). They have two teenage sons (Jonathan Raggett and Jonathan Woodhouse). When Suu Kyi learns that her mother is gravely ill, she returns to Burma. It is during this visit (in 1988) that she realizes how unstable her country has become, and sees how fear and dread rules. When she is asked by pro-democracy activists to remain in-country to lead their burgeoning movement, she accepts.

After this setup, I assumed that I was in for a rousing story of personal sacrifice and determination, set against a backdrop of intense political turmoil and sweeping historical breadth (something along the lines of The Year of Living Dangerously or The Killing Fields). But what follows instead is by-the-numbers; with the dramatic impact of a Powerpoint presentation. Rebecca Frayn’s screenplay takes a Cliff’s Notes approach to Suu Kyi’s life; for a 2 ½ hour film, there are too many unanswered questions and expository holes.

Most significantly, the film is marketed as a great love story…but there is very little passion on display between Thewlis and Yeoh; there is no clue on display as to what sparked the attraction. While  it’s possible Thewlis made a choice to play the “stiff upper lip” English archetype, his behavior toward Yeoh plays as formal and detached.

Instead, we’re given an endless series of farewells and reunions, with Thewlis and sons leaving and arriving in taxis, with only Eric Serra’s overbearing orchestral swells on hand to cue us that we’re supposed to be tearing up. And the part of the family’s story that should truly move us, which was Dr. Aris’ death from prostate cancer after spending the final 4 years of his life unsuccessfully petitioning the Burmese government for permission to visit Suu Kyi (under house arrest), is instead rendered like sudsy, almost laughable (if it weren’t so inherently sad in nature) Disease of the Week melodrama.

As I am a fan of his work, I was expecting much more from Besson, who has built his reputation on slickly produced, well-paced and visually inventive films; usually with strong female protagonists (La Femme Nikita, The Fifth Element, The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc). What he has delivered here (the opening 10 minutes aside) is a film that, while visually stunning, remains emotionally empty.

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