The Lady, 2011, France/UK
The Lady is the biopic of Aung San Suu Kyi (played by Michelle Yeoh), the Burmese political leader of the National League for Democracy. Suu Kyi spent 15 years living under house arrest, with only sparse visits from her husband, Michael Aris (played by David Thewlis) and her sons Alexander (Jonathan Woodhouse) and Kim (Jonathan Raggett).
The film chronicles Suu Kyi’s beginnings as a political leader which was a sharp contrast from her life as a housewife in England. Her subsequent house arrest separates her from her family, and Michael selflessly campaigns on her behalf to bring attention to the political strife in Burma. When Michael is diagnosed with terminal cancer, Suu Kyi is faced with a terrible choice: does she leave Burma with no hope of ever returning, or does she remain in Burma but away from her dying husband?
I hold great admiration for Suu Kyi. She’s an extraordinary woman and her dedication to her country and countrymen is amazing. I knew a good bit about her prior to seeing the film, which is why I was so eager to see it.
Parts of the film works, and parts of it doesn’t. Yeoh and Thewlis were both very good. I was stricken by how much Yeoh resembles Suu Kyi (in one scene early in the film we were shown a photograph and I was sure it was an actual photo of Suu Kyi). Thewlis is great as her devoted husband. He often plays fairly nasty and slimy characters, but Michael is a shining beacon of human goodness.
Unfortunately, the writing was rather weak at times. The dialogue was often stilted, and rife with exposition. Suu Kyi’s life is one that is understandably difficult to film – as there were 15 years where she was stuck living under house arrest. I sensed that the filmmakers did their best with this, but the pacing just doesn’t work at times. This is especially true in the last few minutes, where there is an 8-year jump. The tone prior to the jump and the tone following the jump are completely different, and it felt uncomfortable. There were also issues with the ages of Alexander and Kim. They’re played by the same actors throughout, and they never seem to age much, which was a bit awkward.
The filmmakers also did not know what they wanted the film to be. Was the focus on her personal struggles, or her political struggles? They tried to balance the two, but with limited success. I would have loved to see more about the politicians and public figures who campaigned for her freedom. There were very subtle allusions to the public support – there’s at least one U2 song played in the movie, and U2 are huge supporters of Suu Kyi. The song “Walk On” was written in her honour, which I didn’t know until I did some reading after I saw the film. The lyrics now have new meaning and even more poignancy than they did before.
I still enjoyed the film, despite these issues, but it was because I am interested in Suu Kyi’s work and her story. This is not a film for people who do not already have a familiarity with her. I get the sense that those who don’t know who she is or who are not interested in her accomplishments would find the film painfully dry.