After the end of the Second World War, following over half a Century of Colonial rule, Burma finally found independence, largely thanks to one man: Aung San. Generally considered to be the Father of modern-day Burma, his name is still revered today.
Unfortunately it was not long before Burma was declared ‘unsuitable’ for democratic rule and – following a coup d’état – put under military control by General Ne Win. For a quarter of the Century the country was ruled with an unjust iron fist, plagued by corruption, and tarnished by the superstitious whims of Ne Win, who crippled the economy, making it one of the world’s most impoverished countries.
However, following two decades of studying and living abroad, Aung San’s daughter, Aung San Suu Kyi came home, and brought with her something that the people of Burma had not known since the days of her father: hope.
The Lady tells us the life story of Aung San Suu Kyi, as seen through the eyes of her loving and devoted husband, Michael Aris. After having been diagnosed with terminal prostate cancer, Aris reflects upon his happy marriage to Suu Kyi; their two children and their times together before the fateful call from Burma, relaying the message that Suu’s mother had suffered a stroke, and prompting her to return to home. With news of her arrival immediately reinvigorating the people, she is soon drawn back into the world of politics, and finds herself targeted by the oppressive – and superstitious – regime, seeking to quell any chance of an uprising, and promptly placing her under house arrest for the best part of two decades.
Easily the most prominent political prisoner is Nelson Mandela, who spent the best part of three decades imprisoned for his activism before being released and promptly elected President of South Africa, although another famous political prisoner is Bobby Sands, leader of the 1981 Hunger Strike, who starved himself to death after 66 days of fighting for his cause. Both have been the subject of recent biopics – Clint Eastwood’s Invictus, featuring Morgan Freeman as Mandela; and Steve McQueen’s Hunger, starring Michael Fassbender as Sands.
However, until recently, the plight of Burma has gone largely unresolved and under-acknowledged, both in the Press and in cinema – indeed scant few movies have looked at the situations, with films like Beyond Rangoon and even the recent fourth Rambo movie offering up the oppressive regime as a political backdrop to their stories.
Although one might not immediately think of filmmaker Luc Besson as the right man to bring this kind of powerful political biopic to life, he was the person that actress Michelle Yeoh – the driving force behind the project – approached after being cast as Suu Kyi. And, if you look a little deeper, you can see why. Besson may now be known as little more than a French fantasy director, or a writer/producer behind the likes of the throwaway actioners: The Transporter, Hitman, Taken, From Paris with Love, Colombiana and, most recently, Lockout (he has made over two dozen of these flimsy vehicles using his own production company, and hasn’t directed anything of note in well over a decade) and, even beyond that, he is probably best remembered for action classics like Leon and Nikita, but he also happens to be a proponent of strong female heroines, as is evident from several of his projects.
It is appropriate that the only other biopic to his name is the underappreciated 1999 historical epic The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc, a film he directed with a scale and ambition to it that has not been rivalled until now. Embracing this new production, and trying to channel everything good that he has learned over the past few decades of filmmaking, Besson – along with Michelle Yeoh – seeks to bring the life of Aung San Suu Kyi, and the terrible state of Burma, into the limelight with an honest and revealing look at the last half-Century of oppression.
Yeoh too has probably been undervalued by her more prominent presence in numerous martial arts actioners (Police Story III); a pigeon-holing that has seldom borne beneficial fruit, other than perhaps with 2000’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, where she was finally allowed room to breathe in a character that was more than just flying fists and spinning kicks. Indeed, with the exception of a couple of slightly more dramatic outings (Memoirs of a Geisha and Sunshine), Yeoh has never managed to fully break free from her action roots, until now.
Conducting months of research into the film, both Besson and Yeoh had access to the testimonies of a number of Suu Kyi’s political confidants and, with support from her brother-in-law Anthony Aris, and a true dedication to the subject matter, they set about to create as authentic a biopic as possible.
Yeoh, already fluent in English, Malay and Cantonese – as well as proficient in French – learned Burmese for the role, and indeed her dialogue is so good that you would be forgiven for assuming that she had been speaking it for years. Losing yet more weight from her already slight physique, she would also come to physically embody the look of Suu Kyi – so much so that news photos and promotion photos of the film could easily be favourably compared – and she further studied the mannerisms, gestures and behaviour of the lady by watching hundreds of hours of real-life video footage. Because of her work on the film she was eventually deported by the Burmese government, but not before she had the opportunity to visit the real-life Suu Kyi.
Besson flew to Burma to scout locations and do research, as well as recreating Suu Kyi’s home – where she spent nearly two decades under almost solitary house arrest – in a perfect 1:1 scale, so accurately rendered that it would even face the sun in the exact same direction. He used numerous Burmese extras for the film, as well as a few non-actors who effectively recreated their own personal experiences of the past decades of political turmoil.
And whilst the French filmmaker has still placed his distinctive mark on this production – from his trademark camera shots to that familiar ominous percussive scoring, as delivered by long-term collaborator Eric Serra – this is arguably as far from the norm as possible for him, telling a story almost entirely devoid of action; showcasing a leading female heroine who uses her words as weapons and who leads by a very dignified example.
Yeoh also puts in arguably her most refined performance, even though it takes quite a while to get used to her in the role as it’s a far cry from pretty-much everything you would know her from before. Often compelled to put her emotions on the back-burner, her character is a lady in every sense of the word, and Yeoh does well to jettison any stereotypes you might associate with her and bring this character to life in such a strong and vibrant way, earnestly striving to do justice to the important political figure, whilst never forgetting to imbue her characterisation with the humanity of the woman behind the icon, a woman who had to sacrifice everything for the cause, and whose feelings about it were clearly quite strong even if not always on obvious display.
Supporting her there are myriad actors – most of them Burmese, and most of them you won’t recognise, but for one (in spite of his dodgy J.Edgar-style makeup). David Thewlis plays twin-brother roles, one of whom is of course Suu Kyi’s devoted husband. Thewlis has always been capable of bringing weight to characters – from the darker ones where it comes easily (Naked), to even the lighter offerings (Harry Potter) – and certainly tries his utmost with this role, although he’s largely restricted by the telegraphed fate of the character and the simple lack of dimensionality. We never get to see Thewlis’s Aris fleshed out much beyond his consummate devotion, and often that leaves him – and their two children – as little more than audience POV substitutes.
There is also not as much chemistry between the two leads; certainly not as much as you would have hoped for from individuals who are supposed to be this devoted to one another. Thankfully that does not prevent their pivotal telephone sequences (the only contact they had for many years) from being emotionally resonant and tragically painful, but, whilst Thewlis gets just as much screentime, it’s Yeoh whose plight we are truly interested in, with his powerless bystander in exactly the same position that we are in: we can do little more than just watch the horrors unfold.
Of course, in painting the atrocities of the oppressive military junta, and exploring the faults within the system, Besson’s efforts are at once beneficial and detrimental – the publicity afforded the plight is eminently welcome (indeed Suu Kyi was freed from house arrest just after filming took place, and the increased press on Burma – because of the film – must have had an indirect effect on this), but the black-and-white characterisation is somewhat cartoonish, and only detracts from the impact. The heroes of the piece are painted as nothing short of saints, and whilst the Gandhi-like halo surrounding Suu Kyi may be precisely what she deserves, a more human frailty would have been welcome; and furthermore there’s simply no excuse for portraying her husband as being so damn perfect – it strips him of any kind of depth and leaves him as little more than a dutiful robot servant.
On the flipside, Besson is just as clear-cut in his approach to portraying the military leaders, who are all of the Bond villain variety, sneering and snapping at the subordinates; executing them on a whim – or for the simplest of mistakes – and similarly having very little depth or resonance. These people don’t have a mission; a drive; an ideal (however twisted), instead they are just shown to be pure evil. Whilst their behaviour may well be founded on real-life incidents – the part about General Ne Win erasing all denominations of Burmese currency which weren’t divisible by 9 is wholly true, and based upon a superstition he had that this was the only way he would ever reach the age of 90 – it’s the facts which work as a shock to viewers, not the hammy over-the-top Bond villain behaviour. The simple fact that Ne Win did that with the currency speaks for itself, and needs not grandiose gestures of overtly villainous behaviour to get the point across. We don’t need to see the generals acting like flamboyant psychotics; their actions speak for themselves.
Whilst his intentions are certainly admirable, and there are clear reasons why Besson was drawn to the piece, that does not mean that he isn’t occasionally out of his element. A long feature – at times drawn out – the piecemeal flashback-driven diary entry style to the production fails to maintain its timeline appropriately, and often leaves you feeling like years are days, and vice versa. You certainly never get the feeling that Suu was incarcerated in her house for fifteen months let along fifteen years, and it’s only towards the end where the power and poignancy of the piece starts to emerge.
Still, The Lady is an admirable effort from all those involved – both the cast and the director. It is a great attempt by Besson to try something different, even if he does not succeed he certainly gets an ‘A’ for effort; and furthermore, arguably without his filmmaking clout, the production may have never seen the light of day. With him on board as a producer we get great attention to detail, accuracy of locations (Oxford is Oxford, even if Thailand steps in for most of Burma) and backing finances, and with him on board as a director we get the film rendered with stylish aplomb, even if some of his characters lack the requisite dimensionality which you might have hoped for in a biopic.
As instigator behind this piece, Yeoh also appears to have found a kindred spirit character for her to slip into and shine in all her glory, and she steps up to the plate and impresses in most every way – if you thought all she could do was kick then you’re about to be blown away in a very different way. This was a private mission for her, and her dedication to the project shines through in every respect, leaving her as one of the biggest reasons to watch the film.
Whatever flaws the film may have, it’s intentions are good, and its political effect can only be seen as that of an undeniably positive influence: shining the spotlight on Burma at such a crucial time. With Suu Kyi now free and taking up office, following on from a number of reasonably successful elections, it would seem that democracy might finally be settling into the tyrannical state, but, just in case things don’t go according to plan (as has been the case numerous times over the last half-Century in Burma), the public keeping a closer eye on the situation can only be a good thing. Whilst neither the greatest biopic drama, nor the most entertaining movie in its own right, between Besson’s striving for authenticity and his innate visual panache; between Yeoh’s performance and the unusual nature of the story – which simply demands your attention – the end result is certainly an honourable mention amidst the recent great political prisoner biopics: a very different look at a very different place, and at the very distinguished lady who united an oppressed nation and changed the face of a country forever.
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