sat 13/07/2024

The Lady | reviews, news & interviews

The Lady

The Lady

Biopic of Aung San Suu Kyi struggles with a script as wooden as vintage Burmese teak

Lady with a cause: Michelle Yeo as Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi

Although now a major figure on the world stage, Aung San Suu Kyi began as a reluctant dissident and figure of protest against the military regime of her native Burma. Recent months have seen her finally released from house arrest and set to play a considerable role in the future politics of her benighted country. Such latest developments are beyond the scope of Luc Besson’s film The Lady.

Instead we see her path from Oxford housewife through to leadership of the National League for Democracy opposition party that won a huge victory in the 1990 elections, only for it to be overturned by the authorities. Suu Kyi would be locked away in her lakeside home for most of the next 20 years. That’s a strong narrative in itself, but it’s the human story of her relationship with her husband Michael Aris, their separation enforced by the cruelty of Burma’s regime right up until Aris’s death in 1999, that is most powerful.

aung san suu kyiUnfortunately, the story itself is far stronger than Besson's film. Rebecca Frayn’s script has a distinctly wooden feel to it, and that doesn’t mean the quality of vintage Burmese teak. Michelle Yeoh as Suu Kyi does a valiant job struggling with clunking lines, and achieves a genuine presence at times; David Thewlis (pictured above right with Yeoh) is rather less successful as Aris, but still catches the character of a somewhat otherworldy academic whose family is caught up in a process that forces the couple to make a cruel choice. Had Suu Kyi agreed to leave Burma on her own accord, she would have been with her husband through to his death - she did not, fearing she would be denied readmission to the country; the alternative, which we see in the film, was contact only through brief and unreliable telephone calls.

The rest of the cast – the generals in power, statesmen, diplomats, Oxford academics and an array of members of Burma’s opposition movement – looks even more thinly defined. The leading general, Ne Win, certainly had his eccentricities, making decisions based on tarot readings and numerology, but he’s reduced almost to parody (the phrase “pantomime dictator” comes to mind) and is surrounded by some pretty one-dimensional goons. A large street sign reading “British Embassy” may indicate where the next scene will be taking place but it’s all too indicative of a lowest-common-denominator style of explanation. Moments of emotion are directed rather than being allowed to evolve more organically.

It’s no doubt well-researched, but rarely has history ended up on screen more blandly

Flashbacks are prominent. We begin briefly with the assassination in 1947 of Suu Kyi’s father, Aung San, the hero of Burma’s liberation war with the British, before jumping into the refreshingly ordinary domestic jostle of family life in Oxford in the 1980s. Moving on through her return to look after her ailing mother in 1989, her subsequent growing involvement with the National League, her Nobel Prize for Peace in 1991, and subsequent events, it’s no doubt well-researched, but rarely has history ended up on screen more blandly.

Visually it looks good, especially the landscapes and exteriors shot in Thailand that stand in for Burma. The music seems heavy, dictating reactions rather than nurturing them. Yeoh is impressive, and at best keeps a moving simplicity in her portrayal of Suu Kyi (who had never spoken in public before 1989). If only Besson had approached The Lady with a conviction that less can sometimes speak stronger than more, its story might have had the impact that it deserves.

Watch the trailer for The Lady


Michelle Yeoh as Suu Kyi does a valiant job struggling with clunking lines, and at times achieves a genuine presence


Editor Rating: 
Average: 2 (1 vote)

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