Human rights biopic lacks drama
It can’t be easy to turn one of the most stirring human rights dramas of the past quarter century into stultifying screen pageantry, but director Luc Besson and writer Rebecca Frayn have managed the trick with “The Lady,” their handsome, inert biopic about Burmese democracy activist and former political prisoner Aung San Suu Kyi.
Filmed in early 2011, the movie comes out behind the 8-ball of history, and the startling events of the past year — during which Suu Kyi has been released from decades of house arrest by the ruling military junta and most recently been elected to parliament — are not covered. Instead, “The Lady” presents a stately, rather dull portrayal of a loving marriage stymied by the whims of political necessity and fascist generals.
Michelle Yeoh, the Chinese actress and martial arts star whom most American audiences still know from “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” has been cast in the lead role, yet the performance is anything but a stretch. Having lost weight to more closely resemble the slender Suu Kyi, Yeoh conveys the tensile strength coursing through a fragile body and the moral courage that comes from being the daughter of a late national hero. It’s a good and gracious performance that humanizes a saint from the headlines without making her terribly compelling.
For that, blame Frayn’s script, which is written almost exclusively in tin-eared boilerplate. (A typical exchange: “There is so much to discuss.” “Let’s start, then.”) Before she returned to Burma in 1988 to care for her ailing mother, Suu Kyi lived in England with her husband, British academic Michael Aris (David Thewlis), and their two sons (Jonathan Raggett and Jonathan Woodhouse), and “The Lady” is as much about the strains on the couple’s marriage as it is about the tortures and oppressions of life in Myanmar (Burma’s name after 1989).
If that sounds structurally imbalanced and the slightest bit condescending, it is — can you imagine a movie about a male world leader that agonized so much about leaving the wife and kids behind? Thewlis is very good in what feels like a role tailored for Jim Broadbent, but the more time we spend in England watching Michael watch the telephone, the more we wish we were back where the action is.
Or isn’t. One of the hurdles in making a film about Aung San Suu Kyi is dramatizing years of enforced downtime. How do you make house arrest interesting? Far out of his usual fantasy/action element (“La Femme Nikita”), Besson barely tries, sticking to events leading up to her detention and training his fluidly moving camera on street protests and their brutal suppression. In a way, the most interesting character in the movie is the toad-like General Ne Win (Htun Lin), who makes state decisions affecting millions of Burmese by consulting fortune tellers and decks of cards.
Next to him, YeJoh’s Suu Kyi is upright, inspiring, and colorless. You believe you’d follow her through the streets even as you have a hard time following her through this film. It’s not the star’s fault and it may not be the filmmaker’s. “I don’t care for that cult of personality,” says Suu Kyi at one point. That’s the stuff of revolution. Unfortunately, it’s not why we go to the movies.