The Lady is surprisingly conventional
Directed by Luc Besson. Starring Michelle Yeoh and David Thewlis. In English and Burmese with English subtitles. Rating not available. Opens Friday, April 27, at the Fifth Avenue Cinemas
French filmmaker Luc Besson, he of action flicks like La Femme Nikita and The Fifth Element, is not known for playing it safe. So it’s somewhat surprising that his profile of Burma’s courageous Aung San Suu Kyi is so numbingly conventional.
The veteran director puts some energy into a prologue in which our subject’s father, General Aung San—a hero of the fight against British colonialism—is assassinated in 1947 by members of the same thuggish gang that rules Burma (Myanmar) today. And his depiction of their routine atrocities since then is tart but in no way overblown. The rest, sadly, is mostly a drag. At 132 minutes, Besson and screenwriter Rebecca Frayn could have spent some time explaining how various factions lined up before 1988, when Suu Kyi returned to her country (here played by Thailand) after decades in England.
The emphasis is placed, instead, on her marriage to Michael Aris, an Oxford specialist in Tibetan studies. In my view, Thewlis is criminally underused in big-budget films, and there’s much to enjoy in the Mike Leigh alumnus’s performance as a crusty don who chain-smokes, worries, and raises two sons, mostly in the U.K., while his wife spends more than 20 years under house arrest. (With bad makeup, he also plays Aris’s twin brother, Anthony.)
In real life, the late professor was as handsome as any movie star, so the filmmakers could have gone bigger—especially since Malaysian-born Chinese superstar Michelle Yeoh is a (slightly stiff) ringer for Suu Kyi. This only matters because the charisma of the principals is such a huge part of a story that, let’s face it, mostly involves sitting somewhere beautiful and inspiring people from afar. Besson’s depiction is dramatically inert and Frayn fails to explore Suu Kyi’s personal complexities. Anytime a hero is reduced to listing her faults, rather than displaying them, you’re trafficking in hagiography, not history.