The nation of Burma, or Myanmar, has seen a continuing struggle to establish democracy in the face of a brutally repressive military regime. The “lady” of the title, Aung San Suu Kyi, has ong been the acknowledged leader of the pro-democracy forces and with this film, director Luc Besson has brought her dramatic story to life.
Besson is best known for his visually stylish, kinetically violent films such “The Fifth Element”, and “The Professional,” and “Taken”. Lesser known is his previous effort in epic historical drama, “The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc”, which drew mostly negative reviews, and suffered for its emphasis on action over character.
Here, Besson’s flair for action is appropriately muted. Working from a script by Rebecca Frayn, the film divides its attention between the larger political story of Suu Kyi and her struggles against the government, and the personal story of her relationship with her family, which endured forced separation during her long stretches of house arrest in Burma.
“The Lady” is at its strongest in the emotional scenes between Suu Kyi (Michelle Yeoh) and her husband, Oxford professor Michael Aris (David Thewlis). Yeoh bears a striking resemblance to the real Suu Kyi, and works subtle magic with the role, mixing a quiet grace with a steely resolve. Thewlis is best known for his role as Prof. Lupin in the Harry Potter films, and here brings a similar gentle dignity, especially in the last act, where Aris is dying of prostate cancer. Because she would not be allowed back into Burma once she left, Suu Kyi had to make the painful choice not to be with him or their two children during his final days in England, and the pain of her decision and his acceptance are truly moving. They are performances where the accrual of small details slowly adds up, without any grand scene-stealing, until engaging portraits emerge.
Besson’s direction, and Frayn’s script are uneven, if occasionally inspired. They work slowly through some stilted dialogue and necessary but painfully obvious exposition in the first act, and hit the conventional biographical notes a tad too often. More than once, a scene features Suu Kyi and compatriots planning their next move, and then a scene of a spy reporting the exact same dialogue to the glowering military leadership. Close-captioning for the plot-impaired, I guess. One quizzical sequence begins with the brutal despot stating “take care of the problem.” Decisive violence is implied, a military convoy briskly arrives at Suu Kyi’s home, and they confront her by…having tea. And polite conversation. Close to reality maybe, but it plays like parody here.
The film is a visual feast, photographed beautifully by Thierry Arbogast. Because of the military regime, the filmmakers were only able to get second unit footage of the real Burma, but it is used to maximum advantage, digitally mixed with the main footage which was shot in Thailand, using Burmese refugees as extras. These sequences are often bursting with sun-drenched color and texture, heightening the contrasting horror of the repressive actions taking place there. In one graceful dissolve, there is a lovely visual symmetry portrayed between the Burmese temple towers and the steeples and domes of Oxford. Costume and set design are fittlngly grand and detailed for the epic nature of the material.
There are several scenes of brutal violence, but given the junta’s documented human rights record, Besson states in the making-of documentary extra that he actually underplays the brutality because “some was so bad it could not be shown in a film.”
This edition of “The Lady” is a widescreen feature in 2.35:1. It is a gorgeous Blu-ray presentation that shows off the exceptional cinematography. Colors are vibrant, the depth of field is detailed, and the scene transitions are smooth. There is English subtitling.
“The Lady” Blu-ray edition comes with two audio tracks, one in 5.1DTS-HD Master, and the other in 5.1 Dolby Digital. Both are strong and clear, technically excellent soundtracks. There is no dubbed soundtrack available.
A disappointingly small set of extras, given the subject and its scope.
–a surprisingly interesting making-of documentary, which includes details of the devious means by which the filmmakers got their footage of Burma without the government’s knowledge or approval, and actor David Thewlis’ dual role as Aris and his twin brother.
–original theatrical trailer
“The Lady” is far from an unqualified success, but patience through the rough first act pays off in the gradual build-up of detail and character. While still prone to bouts of obviousness, Besson shows a surer hand than in the past with both intimate scenes and larger-scale historical action, and mostly checks his previous knack for excess. In the end, the performances of Yeoh and Thewlis, and the innate drama of Suu Kyi’s life and her sacrifices in the name of her country, make for engaging and emotional viewing.