Late in The Lady, Luc Besson’s biopic of Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi, the pro-democracy dissident endures a painful moment of truth with her husband, Michael Aris, an Oxford academic, on the patio of the home where she has spent the better part of 21 years under house arrest.
Offering Aris release from a marriage that’s been sorely tested by the machinations of the military junta that has held her nation in thrall since its independence from Britain in 1948, Suu Kyi owns up to the stubbornness, impatience and bad temper that, she worries, have also played their part in keeping her separated from her family.
Aris, played by David Thewlis in full mad-professor hair and unaccustomed good nature, nods ruefully, but the rest of us will have to take his wife’s flaws on trust. In The Lady — an act of worship passing as character study — she has none, unless you count repeat performances of the Pachelbel Canon on the living room piano.
The accomplished actress Michelle Yeoh, who brought the project to Besson, is a regal beauty who brings off an uncanny resemblance to Suu Kyi largely through posture and the trademark flowers the activist wore in her hair. Yeoh has little else to work with, for the Aung San Suu Kyi we see in The Lady is pretty much torn from the headlines — a vision of smiling Gandhian equanimity, unfazed by threats or the gun-waving thugs sent by the generals to keep her from galvanizing the opposition.
Cutting between Oxford, where Suu Kyi’s husband and two sons remained for much of her de facto imprisonment, and Rangoon (now known as Yangon), the film frames her story as an agonized choice between family and country. Periodically set free, Suu Kyi walks among the people, and plans with activists and intellectuals for a freer Burma.
And it’s in the streets that The Lady springs intermittently to life. Known for La Femme Nikita and a slew of very busy action, sci-fi and animated films, Besson is on firm ground with viscerally assured scenes of street protest, bloodied by the arbitrary brutality of a regime insulated from all accountability. There’s a satisfying black comedy to his caricature of the paranoid, trigger-happy junta leaders whose vile cruelty keeps Suu Kyi and her husband apart even after his cancer becomes terminal.
Besson handles evil with crude efficiency, but he’s completely out of his depth with the nuances of character, motivation and flawed connection required by a realist movie. It doesn’t help that the script (by Rebecca Frayn, daughter of British playwright Michael Frayn) groans with stiff exposition aimed at an audience whom the filmmakers clearly believe to be ignorant of world events and unable to absorb human contradiction.
“I don’t like this cult of personality,” Suu Kyi tells her husband on the patio. The Lady, on the other hand, is all for it. Nominating her for sainthood does no justice to Suu Kyi’s demonstrable courage. It takes enormous fortitude — and surely also, at a minimum, ambition, monomania and an ability to screen out more intimate demands — for such a figure to stick to her guns without firing.
What The Lady gets right is Suu Kyi’s instinctive ability to connect with ordinary people and spur them to action. But hagiography is the occupational hazard of the political biopic. In life she didn’t do it alone; in the movie, her colleagues are mostly shown getting roughed up or languishing in prison.
There is every reason to cheer the landslide victory of the National League for Democracy in last week’s election, which will mean a seat in parliament for Aung San Suu Kyi. In the real world, Suu Kyi has made mistakes, as everyone does, and the stubbornness that made her a great role model in opposition may hinder her as a political figure. Given her unwillingness to negotiate with a softened military regime, her reluctance to embrace new blood, and her failure to address the deep ethnic divisions that hamper her country’s prospects for democracy, she may not be the right person to lead in the altered landscape of Myanmar. Or she may just be too late — a tragedy, and possibly a great subject for a movie. Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.