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Besson’s ‘The Lady’ a lovingly painted portrait of an iconic figure

The Lady

Directed by Luc Besson

Written by Rebecca Frayn

France, U.K., 2011

Actress Michelle Yeoh has come a long, long way in her career as an international star. That is not to say that her beginnings were paltry when compared to the status she has now attained, only that her filmmography spans a great many genres, genres that not always highlight similar skills from its actors. Supercop and Supercop 2, anyone? Then came along The Tai Chi Master, which co-starred Jet Li. At the turn of the millennium, there was the international sensation Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which saw her popularity sore through the roof on the international market (a leading lady role in the 007 adventure Tomorrow Never Dies did not hurt either). Finally, with Luc Besson’s The Lady, Yeoh gets her chance to star in a political biopic of rather epic proportions, the sort of film than can truly define an entire career.

The audience first meets the picture’s protagonist (and real life heroine) Aung San Suu Kyi as a child, at a time when the military dictatorship in Burma is still relatively new and sensible political debates can still be exchanged. But this day marks the leap into an entirely new era. Suu’s father, a decent official with aspirations for the democratic process is shot and killed along with several other leading diplomats in a council meeting. From there, the film flashes forward several decades (before flashing backwards again. The film,s timeline is a little awkward at times) when Suu is a housewife and academic living in Oxford’ England with her husband, doctor Michael Aris (David Thewlis) and their two sons, Kim and Alexander. When Suu, already privy to the public discontent in her home country of Burma as well as the terrifying government reprisals, receives word that her mother has had a stroke, two thoughts psring to mind: visit her mother back home (of course) and also see up close and personal what terrible things are happening in her once beloved Burma. This is but the start of a long, arduous political, human rights and personal struggle against the Burmese military dictatorship for Aung San Suu Kyi, a struggle which in real life continues to this very day.

The Aung San Suu Kyi’s story, one which exposes the malice of a vile, corrupt government unleashing its repression on an innocent populace, which also speaks to the strength of the human heart and will when great things are aspired, is ripe for cinema. Here is a woman whose steadfastness in bringing forth a peaceful democracy to the country she calls home in her heart, yet whose every path has planted filled with landmines, both in Burma and back in England, such as when Michael Aris learned he was dying of prostate cancer yet refused to have Suu travel back to England in fear that it would result in her never entering Burma again and thus the failure of her mission. Director Luc Besson, distancing himself temporarily from the sort of movies he is normally associated with, be it as director, screenwriter or producer, takes on the challenge of bringing Suu Kyi’s inspirational story to the screen and, generally speaking, pulls it off handsomely with a lovingly shot picture, despite a few unfortunate missteps here and there.

‘Besson has always had a fine eye for pretty shots and a capacity to concoct very attractive looking movies, and it is nice to see those abilities of his applied to a biopic such as this one.’

The film is wonderful to look at, especially in the scenes taking place in Burma, which is ironic given that most of what goes on in Burma is absolutely horrific, with unabashed intimidation on the part of the military heaped onto the citizens who speak their minds and cry for democracy. The warm hues and colour pallete hint at the not only the natural heat stemming from the natural climate, but the heat of the political conflict between Suu Kyi and the Burmese government apparatus, a tension which builds between the two forces, but also among the protestors. Besson has always had a fine eye for pretty shots and a capacity to concoct very attractive looking movies, and it is nice to see those abilities of his applied to a biopic such as this one.

Star Michelle Yeoh give an exquisitely refined performance as the titular lady. It helps that her facial structure resembles that of the real Suu Kyi to a certain extent (there are moments when it looks as thought the real Suu Kyi took part in the filming), but there is a whole lot more going on. For so long during her career she displayed a flair for adventure with the help of jumps, flips, kicks and punches. Now she has the opportunity to play a character whose strength is in her character, and Yeoh passes with flying colours. There is a risk for actors who take on roles such as this one to make the characters appear to angelic, too perfect. Yeoh avoids that pitfall, playing Suu Kyi with a sense of dignity and passion the real life Suu Kyi is known for. Her stubbornness is both her greatest asset and her greatest weakness, as it propels her forward in her war of will against the country’s oppressors, all the while preventing her from returning to England where a husband and children love and miss her. It is difficult to contrast and compare this performance from her past ones given how different her work in The Lady is, yet it may be argued that Yeoh has never been better than she is here.

Director Besson also features Suu Kyi’s husband in a rather heavy supporting role. David Thewlis fills those shoes, playing Michael Aris with some awkward, fuddy duddy mannerisms which at times are meant to serve as brief comic relief, while on other occasions highlight the man’s nervousness about the entire ordeal. Nevertheless, Michael proves to be a courageous individual and faithful husband, never giving up on Suu, both as a supporter and a soul mate. Thewlis’ acting appears a bit at odds with what everybody else is doing, and viewers with no prior knowledge of what Suu Kyi’s husband was like in real life may question what the actor is trying to accomplish. It makes for an interesting supporting character, that much if certain. His presence makes for a strong balance between him and Suu Kyi, as the audience sees both of them suffer in their respective ways. The idea is that they both loved together and suffered together, always as a unit, even when world’s apart.

‘It is difficult to contrast and compare this performance from her past ones given how different her work in The Lady is, yet it may be argued that Yeoh has never been better than she is here.’

Much like in Suu Kyi’s life, not all is perfectly rosy with Besson’s film. There are moments when discerning viewers can tell that Luc Besson is unaccustomed to sharing stories like this. What he wants to show the audience and when occasionally gets muddles with some questionable editing and the inclusion of scenes that are not necessary, some of which even add some misplaced humour. Besson will often cut back to England in order to demonstrate to the audience Michael’s ineptitude at performing chores one presumes Suu did when she was around, most notably cooking. Sometimes a scene will cut to a reaction shot of one of Michael’s family members who was shown very briefly before but has no real part to play in the film. There is also the matter of some plot developments revealed in mechanical fashion, as if Besson is merely showing off series of events as opposed to telling a cohesive story. The entire section about her Nobel Peace prize, even it ends on a beautiful note, feels laborious and forced in its evolution.

Aung San Suu Kyi’s story alone makes The Lady a worthy night at the movies. Trues enough, one can read books and magazine articles about this most iconic of figures, but Besson does the individual justice by very competently telling a story which spans over a decade in just over two hours. It is easy to detect that he has a lot of admiration for her and wants to make this the best movie possible. The film looks stunning and features a magnificent performance from Michelle Yeoh, who proves, once and for all in case any doubters remained, that she is a stellar actress.

-Edgar Chaput

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