Progress Report, by David Bax
Luc Besson’s La Femme Nikita is one of the best action films of the 1990’s. When he followed it up four years later with Leon: The Professional, he established himself as a defining voice, cementing a type of Euro-cool interpretation of American action bombast the influence of which has snaked out into current studio and art cinema alike. Not only does he continue to shepherd, in his prolific role as a producer, things like Taken and this year’s Colombiana but it’s worth noting that films such as those of current art-house darling Nicolas Winding Refn may not have existed without Besson. So when word got out that the director of Nikita and Leon (not to mention the captivatingly bizarre, flawed vision that is The Fifth Element) was making a film about Aung San Suu Kyi with the wonderful Michelle Yeoh in the lead role and the peerless David Thewlis as her husband, my hopes were understandably high. Then when I saw the pretty but inert end result that is The Lady, I was understandably disappointed.
As mentioned above, The Lady is the story of Aung San Suu Kyi, (Suu, as she is known in the film) the remarkably persistent democracy advocate much beloved by the people of Burma even as its military leadership kept her under house arrest for fifteen years. After a brief and economical but mostly effective prelude in which the young Suu’s father, General Aung San, a pro-democracy leader, is killed in a coup, the story leaps forward 26 years. Suu (now portrayed by Yeoh) is living in England as a mother of two and housewife of British professor Michael Aris (Thewlis). When word comes through that Suu’s mother has taken ill back in Burma, she returns to her home country. What she finds is a nation in turmoil and a roiling movement by students against the current leadership. This massive group immediately rallies behind Suu, as her father continues to be a symbol for their cause. She finds herself morally compelled to stay and step into the role that seems to have been awaiting her all her life. The bulk of the film takes place episodically over the next eleven years, from 1988 to 1999, during which time she organizes free elections, is placed under house arrest, is elected prime minister and sees her husband and sons only on those occasions when the Burmese government will allow them into the country, which become fewer as the years drag.
What excited me about the idea of Besson tackling a prestigious biopic about one of the most noble souls of the last quarter century was the hope that he would bring some of his brand of fast-paced verve to it. Part of what makes The Fifth Element (a film of a different genre but a similarly grand scope) work despite its blemishes is its infectious exuberance. To bring some of that fun to complement what is a largely somber tale sounded like a great idea. Unfortunately, these elements are so lacking in The Lady that whenever Besson does attempt to inject some life into the picture – a peppy sequence of the two sons packing for a trip to see their mother, for instance – it’s more jarring than anything else.
Besson leaves the viewer to arrive at the unfortunate conclusion that he is not emotionally involved in his material. While he clearly understands its weight, he does not appear particularly moved by it. The film reads like a student’s school report on the subject, ploddingly proceeding from one important incident to the next.
This episodic approach, focusing far more on the facts than on the human beings who inhabit them, does no favors for the actors. Thewlis is clearly working hard here but he is never able to establish consistency with Aris. In each scene, he represents little more than his specific actions. The same is true of Yeoh, who suffers the added obstacle of performing in a language that is not her own. The lack of a real character for Suu mixed with the actor’s stilted delivery is a major misfortune.
The best thing going for the film is the fact that Besson has brought along his usual collaborator, cinematographer Thierry Arbogast. These two artists working together create reliably compelling frames and movements with a sense of mise en scène that both knows how to impress and knows that it doesn’t always have to. The compositions here can be absolutely dazzling when Besson and Arbogast want them to and much more quietly powerful at all other times. The locations are astounding as well. Filming mostly in and around Bangkok, Besson presents a world that is grandly beautiful while also being earthbound in a relatable way. This looks like a place where people actually live, if a particularly verdant one. The irony of atrocities against human rights being carried out in so lovely a setting is thankfully not lost on Besson.
The story of Aung San Suu Kyi is an important one and one that continues to this day. She’s still a beacon for the hope of worldwide freedom from tyranny and a large-scale international production about her such as The Lady will only bring more needed attention to her and her cause. Still, it’s difficult not to think about how much more impactful the film could’ve been were it a truly good one. After all, any story worth telling is worth telling well.