“Now I feel like I need to learn more about the story,” I could overhear someone saying as I left a screening of “The Lady,” and though it’s a low bar to surpass for a biopic, it’s no small achievement that Luc Besson’s film about the Burmese activist Aung San Suu Kyi leaves you wanting more.
That may sound like a backhanded compliment, but it shouldn’t be taken as such. After the series of self-serious awards bait that passes through movie theaters every winter, “The Lady” is refreshing in reframing Suu Kyi’s struggle to bring democracy to her home country, mostly while under house arrest, as a bit of a comic book treatment, light on detail yet vividly drawn.
Besson sets up the parameters for this within the film’s first five minutes, opening up with the voice of a young Suu Kyi asking her father to “Tell me a story” and shortly after he tells her about when Burma was known as the golden land, a group of his political rivals burst through the doors of the family’s plantation with the same swagger as Gary Oldman in “The Professional” and kill him point blank. Filmed in slo-mo with the gunmen drawing their weapons directly towards the camera, the sequence borders on poor taste considering the historical context, but Besson’s use of the action techniques he perfected in such films as “La Femme Nikita” and “The Fifth Element” rattle the senses in order to open up the mind for what otherwise might be a dull history lesson.
Of course, the director had tried this once before with “The Messenger,” the ill-fated take on Joan of Arc that set Milla Jovovich on her path towards becoming a kickass heroine, but let bombast overrun the narrative. Here, he does the opposite by taking an icon in Michelle Yeoh and allowing her considerable gravitas to carry the story of Suu Kyi’s rise to power as a peaceful agent of change. The daughter of the revered revolutionary Aung San, Suu Kyi is the natural choice to become the leader of Burma’s National League for Democracy, though a potentially unavailable one since moving west with her husband Michael Aris (David Thewlis), a British Tibetan scholar. She is brought back to Burma by the poor health of her mother, a political force in her own right who gets short shrift in Rebecca Frayn’s straightforward script, and the film finds an emotional core in the long-distance relationship between Aris and Suu Kyi.
As depicted in “The Lady,” Aris and Suu Kyi are driven together by idealism rather than actual romance, which is why it’s forgivable that few sparks fly in the scenes where Thewlis and Yeoh are on the same continent. After all, when Yeoh is painted as angelically as Suu Kyi is here, it makes sense that the only evidence of sex is the two children they have together, both of whom become indifferent to their mother’s place on the world stage when they see her so rarely. Yet that’s actually part of the film’s strength in depicting the personal toll Suu Kyi’s commitment to a democratic Burma takes on those closest to her, the millions depending on her and, in all too rare moments, herself.
Yeoh and Thewlis both give nuanced performances that are in stark contrast to the cartoonish villains placed around them, the Burmese dictatorship dressed in garish military garb so weighted down with decoration there’s no mistaking that they’re the heavies. (The film ridiculously — but entertainingly — would have you believe that Suu Kyi’s 15-year imprisonment was strongly influenced by a general’s consultation with a psychic.) Though Besson fills the film with color, he clearly views its subject matter in black and white, with the behavior of its heroes and villains exaggerated for effect, the accuracy of their behavior questionable but not the intentions behind it. By dressing up the film in terms he knows well, Besson shows good and evil as it really is, enlivening a story that too few know. Surely the definitive biography of Suu Kyi has yet to be made, but even if “The Lady” requires footnotes, it’s intriguing enough to inspire one to go look them up.
"The Lady" opens December 2nd in Los Angeles at the Music Hall for a one-week Oscar consideration run. It will be released on February 17th.