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Lady, The
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by Peter Sobczynski

"Beyond Rangoon And Back"
3 stars

"The Lady" contains virtually everything that any self-respecting biopic needs in order to succeed. It has, in the life of Burmese political activist Aung San Suu Kyi, a stirring narrative involving a woman who overcame violence, oppression and separation from her family due to the courage of her convictions, a powerful narrative that will also serve as an eye-opener to a portion of recent world history of which many may not be fully aware. At its center, it contains a powerful career-best performance by Michelle Yeoh that pretty much beats Meryl Streep's hack impersonation of Margaret Thatcher in "The Iron Lady" like a gong. Most importantly, it has been made with impeccable skill and with enormous and obvious respect for its subject. The only problem is that while "The Lady" is as well-meaning and sincere as can be, it is also a bit of a drag--a passion project without any demonstration of genuine passion that I could detect.

For those unfamiliar with the story of Suu Kyi, it begins here with a prologue set in 1947 when her father, a popular general and a leader in the movement to bring democracy to Burma, was murdered by a military death squad when she was only three. When the story picks up again in 1988, Burma is under the thumb of a brutal military dictatorship and Suu Kyi is living in Oxford with her professor husband, Michael Aris (David Thewlis) and their two sons. When she gets word that her mother has had a stroke, she returns to Burma to be at her side and while at the hospital, she finds herself in the middle of a violent crackdown against those protesting the government. When word gets out that she is in the country, she is pressed into service as a leader of the burgeoning reform movement in the hopes that she can continue her father's work and lead Burma to freedom. The military tries to intimidate her into stepping away--even going so far as to point a gun straight at her head--but she refuses to back down and forms a political party that unites much of the country.

In 1990, her party sweeps the Burmese elections in a landslide. Inevitably, the current dictatorship is less than enthused with the results and respond by ignoring the vote and placing Suu Kyi under house arrest while forbidding her family from visiting her. For the next decade, Suu Kyi is stuck in her house with only minimal contact with the outside world while Michael struggles to call attention to her plight in the hopes that the eyes of the world ensure that she won't suddenly "disappear" one day. Eventually, Michael's efforts result in Suu Kyi winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991, an event that she cannot attend because she knows she will never be let back into the country if she does. To make matters worse, the government continues to forbid her family from visiting her, even after MIchael develops prostate cancer and has only a short time to live. Because of this, Suu Kyi finds herself literally forced to choose between her family and her country and no mater which one she picks, she may lose the other forever.

Oddly enough, "The Lady" has been directed by none other than Luc Besson, the French filmmaker who specializes in wild and borderline cartoonish (in the best possible way) action-fantasies like "La Femme Nikita," "Leon" and "The Fifth Element," not to mention the dozens and dozens of titles that he has written or produced such as the "Transporter" series and the current "Lockout." One might think that Besson's typically nutball cinematic approach would seem to be a profound mismatch with parameters of the life story of Suu Kyi, whose ass-kicking was of the dignified and metaphorical kind, and it seems as though Besson felt the same way as not even the most finely tuned auterist radar would be able to detect his handiwork based on the on-screen evidence. Even his previous biopic, the Joan of Arc epic "The Messenger," found him indulging in his cheerfully childish side during the scenes in which he frankly embraced the mythical aspects of his heroine both dramatically and cinematically. None of that is to be found here--no bits of goofball humor, no wild camera moves, no flashy editing or any of the other things that have made Besson's films such a joy to watch in the past.

The trouble is that in the process of delivering his most staid and straightforward work as a director so as to presumably avoid showing any disrespect to his subject, he has overcompensated to such a degree that a story that should have been electrifying instead comes across as kind of dull and dramatically inert. Besson doesn't do anything wrong necessarily and the contributions for key collaborators like cinematographer Thierry Arbogast and composer Eric Serra are top-notch as usual but after a while, the whole thing begins to really drag after a while. To be fair to Besson, the screenplay by Rebecca Frayn that he is working from is too reverential by half and inexplicably frames the story with material surrounding Michael's cancer that weirdly steals the focus away from its subject as the film comes to its conclusion. As a result, a film about a woman who became famous for putting the needs of her country before herself ends up playing like just the kind of hagiography that seems totally out of character with what she represents. As a confirmed Besson fanatic/apologist, I admit that after watching many a bland and formulaic genre film over the years, I have found myself speculating on what they might have been like in his hands. With this film, I found myself in the odd position of wondering what it might have been like in the hands of other filmmakers who might have been a little more in sync with the material at hand.

What almost makes "The Lady" work, despite its misfired good intentions, is the performance by Michelle Yeoh as Aung San Suu Kyi. For years, Yeoh was marketed as an action babe thanks to her appearances in films like "Supercop," "Tomorrow Never Dies" and "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" but even when she was doing wild stunts and intricate fight choreography, she brought a quiet dignity and serenity to the proceedings that was striking enough to suggest that she would continue to flourish in roles that didn't require her to deliver beatdowns on a regular basis. Alas, her recent filmography has been somewhat uneven, to put it politely, but whatever she is in (even a disaster like "Memoirs of a Geisha"), she has always been the best thing about whatever project which with she has been involved and that is certainly the case here. Sure Yeoh is a dead ringer for Suu Kyi and might have easily been cast in the role based on that aspect alone but unlike so many performances in biopics these days, she is doing something far more deeper and truer than a mere impersonation. Without ever succumbing to the temptation to deliver the big, showy performance that might have earned her an Oscar nomination, she instead goes inward to find Suu Kyi's soul--what it was that made her tick and carry on in the face of such adeversity--and her representation of that is fascinating to watch. It doesn't quite balance out the film's other flaws but it comes mighty close to doing just that.

If you already have a predisposed interest in the subject of Aung San Suu Kyi and what she did in Burma (and continues to do to this very day, being elected to Parliament just a couple of weeks ago), then "The Lady" may be of interest to you. However, if you are coming into the material cold or even if you are a Besson cultist, you may come away from it as I did--admiring Yeoh's performance but with a general sense of indifference towards the rest and the sneaking suspicion that a documentary about Suu Kyi, or even one about the numerous hoops that the production had to go through in order to be made (ranging from Besson allegedly shooting footage in Rangoon clandestinely to Yeoh being barred from entering the land entirely), might have made for a more interesting experience. In the end, watching "The Lady" is not unlike being trapped at an endless testimonial dinner--you admire the subject and all that they are being honored for but after being hammered with such unrelenting nobility for a couple of hours, all you want to do is sneak out and grab a cheeseburger, cinematic or otherwise, instead.

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originally posted: 04/20/12 12:16:05
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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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