The Lady Reviews
Burma is not a subject that is frequently touched upon by mainstream western filmmakers. Prior to The Lady the only film I had seen to cover such an issue was Rambo (2007). Yet even though there is powerful subject matter at the heart of The Lady, there is a distinctive feeling that it unfolds without any sense of emotion. I really feel like there should be, but Luc Besson simply fails to grasp it. It's not his usual kind of mistake though because he doesn't pump melodrama into the story, but rather attempts to let it develop on its own. And perhaps that is the downfall this time around because there ends up being little to separate The Lady from the formula of countless other tales of when a single person helped to change the world so significantly. Since Luc Besson is not the kind of director who can make a story effective unless it forsakes substance for style and The Lady is a feature which demands substance, his lack of grip over what it takes to truly convey the achievements of Aung San Suu Kyi's existence.
Though traditionally dramatization within biopics proves to make the experience tedious, in the case of The Lady is could have helped in parts. For one thing it would have been nice if the story had any sense of heart about the struggle Aung San Suu Kyi's family was going through back home while she was confined to an unjust political house arrest for multiple years as well as her own personal experiences. Instead, all Luc Besson does is skim the surface and examine the subject matter as a member of the outside looking in. Everyone familiar with the real-world relevance of the story has been a member of the outside looking in, so all Luc Besson really does is achieve a pointless reconstruction of historical events. His determination to pursue real world accuracy is admirable as is the fact that he actually explored Burma and filmed there in private, but aside from some appealing imagery there is little narrative value from what he contributes to The Lady.
The lack of dramatization leaves the mood to be rather light, leaving all the plot dynamics to feel like the story is just a day in the life of Burma. In a sense it is, but the story of Aung San Suu Kyi is clearly so much more and yet it's as if viewers are already so desensitized to everything that what she did for the world is meaningless. Neither Luc Besson's work nor Rebecca Frayn's script can do justice to what should be inspiring material. There are moments in the film such as one point where it takes a three year jump to come back to Aung San Suu Kyi's son confessing that he misses his mother that I could predict exactly what the characters were going to say and the script lived up to every generic word as it came out in my mind. It's set up to be fairly simplistic from the start since the film is titled "The Lady" for lack of anything better.
As with many Luc Besson films, the viewer becomes so nihilistic in desire for narrative that their eye turns to focus on style. If you keep your eye out for imagery in The Lady, it's difficult to deny that there is clearly some beauty to behold. There is life everywhere in the film, a colourful contrast between the Western world occupied by Michael Aris and his children with the land of Burma. Even though Burma is a land of violent territoriality and political turmoil, the land itself and the housing structures still have a sense of beauty which Luc Besson clearly has an appreciation for. Luc Besson is a transatlantic filmmaker in the sense that he works frequently with cinematic elements of both the east and the west, and he is able to use strong cinematography to find beautiful life at both ends of the spectrum in The Lady.
This just leaves the cast. And unfortunately, I cannot conform to the consensus of critics that the actors in The Lady are really firm enough to take a stand.
Luc Besson's talent for crafting strong female characters does not translate into a straightforward drama film or particularly a biopic about a woman who actually changed the face of history, leaving Michelle Yeoh stranded in a one-dimensional shadow of a truly remarkable person. Michelle Yeoh's performance is often singled out as the most viable asset to The Lady, but I can't help but wonder why. I certainly felt like she was a friendly presence and that her smile lit up the screen, but it all felt like too much of a performance. I'm not sure if Michelle Yeoh is attempting to capture the peaceful nature of Aung San Suu Kyi, but what she ends up bringing to the role is seemingly an emotionless caricature. If Aung San Suu Kyi truly did have the same attitude as depicted in The Lady then she was a larger-than-life woman in not just a social manner but an emotional one, and my lack of prior knowledge to her life story could be my downfall in making this claim. But either way I just can't say it felt genuine to me because even though Michelle Yeoh has a friendly demeanour to her, there isn't a sense that she grasps the full scope of Aung San Suu Kyi's achievements while playing her. A key point in the story that points this is out is when Michelle Yeoh gives her inspiring speech to the Burmese people, it feels very much rehearsed. Michelle Yeoh carries her role as if she is giving a rehearsed speech at high school with a smile stapled to her face, creating a likable but meandering result.
David Thewlis achieves similar results. The weight of the film is not on his shoulders as much since he is not the titular character but rather a supporting figure in her life story, and as a result the script doesn't give a great character either. He is left to do little but mourn for the absence of his wife, and though David Thewlis accomplishes this while also conveying how much Michael Aris cared for his wife and children while maintaining his own natural English charm, there is just little actual character in the part. He contributes what he can and creates a likable result, but there is just little room for actual accomplishment with such subpar material.
The vibrant energy of the young Jonathan Raggett and Jonathan Woodhouse stands out when the rest of the film is so monotonous so their performances are some of the most notable in the film.
So The Lady delivers precisely what I would expect from a Luc Besson film with effective imagery and no narrative accomplishment. But since the real-world relevance of the subject's accomplishments turn into one of the few times Luc Besson has failed to create a strong female character, the result is all the more disappointing
It is 1947, and her father, Aung San(Phoe Zaw), one of the founding fathers of Burma, is gunned down in cold blood by army soldiers.
It is 1998 and her husband, Michael Aris(David Thewlis), an Oxford professor, has just been diagnosed with terminal prostate cancer. He now has between five months and five years to live which as pointed out, should be enough time to settle his affairs. Except that she is stuck in Burma and if she leaves, she will not be able to return.
It is 1988 and her mother(Marian Yu) has just had a serious stroke in Burma. That causes Aung San Suu Kyi to return to her native country from England, with her family not far behind her, just as democracy protests are kicking into high gear.
On the other hand, while I respect the well-intentioned thoughts of "The Lady," crafting it as a romance and giving equal time to her husband do it little favor, making Aung San Suu Kyi almost a supporting player in her own story.(Therefore, David Thewlis' excellent performance ironically hurts the movie more than it helps.) Not to paraphrase "Man of Steel" anymore than I absolutely have to, but the far reaching and lasting peaceful movement for democracy in Burma is larger than all of these people. For the record, I don't mean to take anything away from the personal struggles of the dedicated Aung San Suu Kyi when I say that. But if one wanted to really give a sense of her isolation under house arrest, then a one woman show would have definitely been the way to go, assuming one cast the right actress.