Luc Besson’s first collaboration with Michelle Yeoh isn’t a no-nonsense martial-arts spectacular, despite The Lady being a quietly chilling title for such a feature. It wouldn’t even be the least descriptive appellation from his oeuvre, what with the French writer-director-producer having already provided us with The Assassin, The Professional, The Transporter, Taken, and, vaguest of all, Taxi.
Besson abandons all neck-stomping and throat-punching here, instead depicting the decades long struggle of Aung San Suu Kyi, daughter of a slain revolutionary and Burma’s great democratic hope. Unlike the leads of those aforementioned films, Suu Kyi deals with the oppressive military regime of her beloved homeland with peace, love, and begrudging understanding. That being said, she does have her own “particular set of skills.” So committed to deposing the ruthless junta, Suu stares down the barrels of guns, endures a psychologically-devastating separation from her family whilst under house arrest, and carries the weight of an entire nation’s freedom on her shoulders. Could Neeson, Reno, or Statham combined ever match that level of hardened badassery?
Yeoh portrays Suu Kyi with poise, and though she is burdened with screenwriter Rebecca Frayn’s ludicrously flat and colourless dialogue, she is a graceful counterpart to the real woman. Equally impressive is David Thewlis as her husband Michael Aris, who has no choice but to remain in Oxford for much of his wife’s imprisonment; campaigning for her receipt of the Nobel Peace Prize, and caring for their two boys, Kim (Jonathan Raggett) and Alexander (Jonathan Woodhouse), eventually succumbing to cancer a world away from his love.
The picture is at its best when Suu and Michael are kept at arm’s length, desperately trying to communicate via short-living phone lines and in heartfelt, hand-written letters. Their occasional reunions are particularly passionless and detached, but we’ll blame the script and Besson’s inability to shoot a two-person conversation competently (a minute-long scene between Michael and a professor with ties to the Nobel committee bizarrely features the two of them shaking hands throughout its entirety).
The movie ably balances Burma’s political turmoil with the domestic struggle of Suu’s family, never compromising the stakes of the macro or the intimacy of the micro. Perhaps her ascent from London-based housewife to saintly icon occurs a little too quickly; there is a lot of ground to cover though, and Besson deserves credit for moving swiftly and maintaining dramatic tension across his various narrative threads. The Lady paints with broad brushstrokes – quite literally, when Suu begins to decorate her home/jail with calligraphed A3-sized quotations from Dr. Martin Luther King and the like – but her plight is so innately compelling, a filmmaker would have to actively bungle every moment to make it remotely unwatchable.
Suu Kyi’s plight continues today, having only recently been elected to Myanmar’s parliament following the completion of her 15-year incarceration. Appropriately, The Lady does not condescend to tack on a false, “happy” ending, nor does it reserve its final moments for proselytising. Unlike other recent biopics of this nature – excluding the sublime Milk - it seeks first and foremost to tell the tale of its subject honourably and cinematically, a seemingly simple task that is often forgotten in favour of the recounting of specific events with a reluctant, mechanical rhythm. It is not without faults, but as a piece of illuminating and occasionally – dare I say it – inspirational entertainment, The Lady has my vote.
The Lady opens in Australian cinemas April 19, 2012.