Activist's depth lost in retelling
By Adam Bernstein
Friday, Apr. 20, 2012
As her husband was dying of cancer in England, Burmese democracy activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi was under house detention by the ruling military junta - as she had been for the better part of 20 years. The generals encouraged her to leave for the U.K. - a cynical humanitarian gesture that was also a one-way ticket to remove her from Burmese politics.
Amid this traumatic personal and political struggle, Suu Kyi was asked by reporters whether her life resembled a Greek tragedy. "Oh, don't be silly," she replied. "I don't go in for melodrama."
Well, director Luc Besson and screenwriter Rebecca Frayn sure do.
"The Lady," their biopic of Suu Kyi, is a heavy-handed attempt to sanctify one of the most dignified and uncompromising politicians and human rights champions of recent times. (She was elected to parliament this month amid strong showing in elections by her National League for Democracy party.)
Suu Kyi has long been the noble public face of Burmese military's brutal oppression. The filmmakers' efforts at hagiography have the effect of making her a colorless vessel floating along history's tides. The story doesn't pierce her mettle and explain convincingly why she mostly forsakes her husband of 27 years and their two sons.
"The Lady" tics through Suu Kyi's life with the bland pacing of a made-for-network television drama, but at 132 minutes, so much more gets you so much less. "Suu," as she's called in the film, is the daughter of Gen. Aung San, who helped Burma win independence from England. Her father plants an orchid in her hair, tells her about the glories of Burma and then, frames later, is gunned down by a fanatic.
Long settled in England, Suu Kyi returns to Burma in 1988 to care for her dying mother and, clutching a Gandhi biography, soon galvanizes the democracy movement. This longtime Oxford housewife seems to court death with the equipoise of a Buddhist monk. History, then a Nobel Peace Prize, seem thrust upon her, with brief TV news excerpts trying, in vain, to fill the gaps. It's a cheap trick.
As an adult, Suu Kyi is played by the Malaysian-born actress Michelle Yeoh. She's uncannily good at resembling Suu Kyi, which is to say she keeps her trademark orchid in her hair without too much fuss. But there's very little attempt to illuminate Suu Kyi's savvy or struggles - or those of her advisers - as they challenge one of the world's most oppressive and secretive regimes.
Suu Kyi, perhaps courtesy of that Gandhi biography she carts around, emerges an authority on leading a movement of nonviolent resistance. She gains the confidence of a nation because of her pedigree.
It surely isn't because of her eloquence. Before crowds, she mouths platitudes about respect and human liberty but says nothing remotely memorable. Everyone basks in her saintly glow.
Suu Kyi feels the tug of destiny. Yet viewers have no sense that this was implanted in her all along, that she took a risk in marrying and having children, that she once made her husband promise never to stand in her way if she had a chance to fulfill her father's dream of a democratic Burma.
David Thewlis plays Suu Kyi's husband, Michael Aris - a respected Oxford scholar of Himalayan politics and culture - as a muttering schlub with stringy hair. This de facto single father tries to orchestrate his wife's Nobel campaign to raise her international profile. But his main task, especially his lingering death, seems to be in service of pathos. Aris died in 1999, on his 53rd birthday.
Given Besson's portfolio of action films - "La Femme Nikita,"
"Leon: The Professional" - "The Lady" is most urgent when it's gritty: the street protesters mowed down by thuggish troops, the extrajudicial killings, the abductions, the quickening fear of Suu Kyi's advisers as they are hauled away by the security apparatus. The film breathes best when it focuses on Senior Gen. Than Shwe (Agga Poechit), who consults soothsayers and plots among his own toadying officers.
"I don't want a personality cult," Suu Kyi once said. "We've had enough dictators here." Yet "The Lady" ultimately burnishes the cult without making her achievement vivid.
In the final scene, the filmmakers nearly succeed in turning Suu Kyi into an Asian Eva Peron, down to the outspread arms, tossing an orchid to her worshippers.
Contains violence and some bloody images.