Film Review: The Lady

Straightforward account of how Nobel Prize-winner Aung San Suu Kyi became the leading proponent of peaceful change in Burma.

Events in Burma (or Myanmar, as authorities would have you say) have outpaced The Lady, a sincere if stodgy biography of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. With a convincing performance by Michelle Yeoh and a script that delves into unexpected areas, the film is respectful and at times revealing. It tells an important story, but in this instance one that's not very much fun to watch.

The Lady opens with a bloody coup in 1947 Rangoon that takes the life of Aung San Suu Kyi's father, a general who had been promoting democracy. Flashing forward to 1998, we meet Suu Kyi's husband Michael Aris (David Thewlis), a professor at Oxford who has just been told that prostate cancer will take his life within months.

The film then shows Suu Kyi's life in England with Aris and their two sons, Kim (Jonathan Raggett) and Alex (Jonathan Woodhouse). She returns to Burma after many years abroad to tend to her ailing mother.

Unwilling at first to be drawn into the country's politics, Suu Kyi eventually becomes a spokesperson for a democracy movement that hopes to overthrow military rule. She travels the countryside delivering speeches, her father still so revered that authorities worry about turning her into a martyr.

But they can still make Suu Kyi's life difficult. They place her under house arrest, isolating her from her followers, and prohibit her husband and sons from seeing her. At times the regime loosens restrictions, allowing Aris and the boys to visit with the hope that they will persuade Suu Kyi to leave the country. But officers can change conditions on whims, at one time even barricading Suu Kyi within her compound.

Yeoh gives a pitch-perfect impersonation of Suu Kyi. The physical resemblance between the two is uncanny, and the actress has the physical presence to suggest some of the confidence and power the activist must have displayed in facing down the military. But the role has been written so guardedly that she has trouble breathing life into it at times.

Viewers may be a bit nonplussed when they discover how much of The Lady concerns Michael Aris. In keeping with the rest of the film, scenes between Suu Kyi and Aris are quiet, even restrained, the characters repressing their feelings to protect those around them. Even the political riots have a detached feel to them, all the more unexpected given director Luc Besson's action credentials.

Besson and screenwriter Rebecca Frayn choose to imply much of the story, like Suu Kyi's extraordinary courage while outlasting her opponents. Given the political circumstances in Burma during the time they were shooting, this may have been the only strategy available to them. Individual moments, like Suu Kyi's first speech to the public, are handled expertly. Even so, the film could have used less hagiography and a little more rabblerousing. The Lady is a beautiful and stately tribute to a genuine hero, but watching it you wish it could have been better.