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Lady, The
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by Jay Seaver

"Michelle Yeoh as a different sort of hero."
3 stars

In addition to directing his own films, Luc Besson has spent the past decade or two writing and producing action movies tailored to their stars; Michelle Yeoh was arguably the biggest female action star in the world during the 1990s. So it makes perfect sense that they would team up for the biography of a pacifist who sticks to her principles. They do surprisingly well, though, at least to a point.

In 1988, Aung San Suu Kyi (Yeoh) is living in Oxford, married to historian Michael Aris (David Thewlis), when she gets a call that her mother has had a stroke back in Burma. When she arrives, she gets more scrutiny than usual from the security services, because as the daughter of martyred national hero Aung San, she could rally the country's pro-democracy movement. She tries to stay focused on her family, but a crackdown that spills into the hospital has Suu Kyi drawn in. Of course, while she makes sure to adhere to the law, the military junta has no such compunctions.

Suu Kyi, as portrayed here, is pretty close to a saint, and saints can be difficult to get a handle on - a constant stream of doing the right thing in the right way for the right reasons is the way we would like the world to work, but it can be kind of dull, dramatically. What Besson and writer Rebecca Frayn do that makes it work is to underplay Suu Kyi is the daughter of a martyr doing something extraordinary as opposed to a good woman making an almost reflexive attempt to help. Comedic cutaways to Michael having trouble with household tasks or the kids being average teenagers help this - it makes Suu Kyi someone we can understand rather than an unattainable paragon, smoothing over the irony of someone who is effectively a princess leading a campaign for democracy.

Besson, Frayn, and company do a good job of balancing the individuality of the characters with how ordinary they can be for much of the film while occasionally making detours to the bigger picture. Eventually, though, the film's events catch up to the flash-forward at the beginning, and while no disrespect is meant to the Aris family who lived through these events, it's at this point that The Lady seems less familiar from life and more like other movies. After spending the better part of two hours doing an admirable job of avoiding melodrama and hand-wringing, the filmmakers succumb whole-heartedly, and while nothing in the last act rings false, it certainly does feel like it's been chosen to give the movie a cleaner arc and endpoint than history offers.

This shift toward higher dramatics does not much affect the fine work done by Michelle Yeoh. The still-living legend is the sort of role that can make an actor over-cautious, while well-intentioned attempts to humanize the myth can undercut their greatness. Yeoh shows us a woman who accepts responsibility with unusual grace, and is clearly intelligent enough to understand her position. "The Lady" is a title she can live up to, although Yeoh has some of her best moments when Suu Kyi may be pushing her presumed safety too far.

Thewlis takes the brunt of the tonal shift as a charming supporting role - he's kind of playing what would traditionally be the dedicated wife - gets pushy and broad as his character's ill health gives him the chance to suffer demonstratively. Even then, though, he has a nice chemistry with Yeoh and the actors playing the couple's sons, Jonathan Raggett and Jonathan Woodhouse. Their work is especially impressive, considering the early-teen to early-adult range each must play. The various actors playing Burmese generals tend to blend together, unfortunately.

One does a standard movie-villain move at one point, and it's easy to look at Besson's filmography and wonder if maybe he's more comfortable with that sort of thing (though more because of a shot in the opening flashback than that one). Maybe that's why he boosts the later drama. He does make a beautiful movie, and also mixes Thailand shoots in with footage smuggled out of Burma seamlessly.

The end credits informing us that some of the people involved cannot be named for their own safety tells the audience a fair amount about where things stand in Burma now, ten years after the main narrative of this movie ends. So there's more quiet bravery to admire, enough that the movie doesn't need the loud variety.

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originally posted: 04/17/12 13:29:05
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2011 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: Cinequest Film Festival 22 For more in the Cinequest Film Festival 22 series, click here.

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  02-Dec-2011 (R)



Directed by
  Luc Besson

Written by
  Rebecca Frayn

  David Thewlis
  Michelle Yeoh
  William Hope
  Sahajak Boonthanakit
  Nay Myo Thant

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