Monday night, there was a special screening of The Lady in Washington DC. The film is a biopic of political leader and Nobel Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi of Burma. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was in attendance, as were director Luc Besson and star Michelle Yeoh.
This was a fine celebration in many ways. Suu Kyi’s political party had won a landslide victory in the national parliamentary elections at the beginning the month. The government has even allowed her into the political mainstream, and she’ll be taking her seat in the lower house of parliament on April 23rd. The film’s stateside release may bring greater attention to her cause, resulting in added scrutiny on the Burmese government and more sweeping political reforms.
The tide in Burma seems to be turning, and The Lady wants to help the process along. Its sincerity can’t be disputed. Yet despite all the good intentions and the positive effects it might have in the real world, The Lady does very few things well as a film.
Director: Luc Besson
Release Date: April 11, 2012 (limited)
First some background about the political situation in Burma. I’m not an expert on this, so apologies in advance for any mistakes I make.
Suu Kyi (played by Michelle Yeoh) is the daughter of Aung San, a Burmese national hero who was instrumental in gaining the country’s independence from British colonial rule. Aung San was assassinated in 1947 by political rivals. Suu Kyi left Burma to live and study abroad, eventually marrying Tibetan scholar Dr. Michael Aris (played by David Thewlis) in 1972. She became a major political figure in Burma when she returned to the country to visit her ailing mother in 1988. At various times between 1989 and 2010, she’s been placed under house arrest by the Burmese government. Her family was forced to live apart from her in England, and were often denied visas to visit by the Burmese government. If Suu Kyi left Burma, her political gains would be destroyed. Her total time under house arrest: 15 years. She won the Nobel Peace Prize (while under house arrest) in 1991.
The first dictatorship in Burma began in 1962. It lasted until 1988, at which time another military junta took power, the State Law and Order Restoration Council, later re-named the State Peace and Development Council. The government has been responsible for countless human rights violations, including torture, forced labor, politically motivated executions, rape, and deadly crackdowns on opposition protests. The regime repeatedly came into conflict with Suu Kyi, though in 2011, the council dissolved and ceded power to its hand-picked president Thein Sein.
That’s a potent story about a woman’s courage and a people’s determination against a massive military machine. But in terms of films about Burma, I think Rambo was far more successful. (That’s not a sleight against the Stallone movie, I thought it was legitimately good.) The Lady is full of false notes and artificial sweeteners. As much as Besson believes in the political cause, he’s out of his element here. Part of it may have something to do with the script by Rebecca Frayn, which has all the grace and subtlety of a sappy made-for-TV drama.
That’s one of the dangers of making a biopic. In trying to distill the essence of an important figure into a feature-length narrative, you’re forced to take shortcuts or to heighten certain aspects of their lives. The trick of successful biopics is to render people as punched-up versions of themselves rather than cheap caricatures.
This works fine for the military dictatorship. Their brutality and irrationality are heightened, but maybe not by too much. We know for a fact that dictator Than Shwe (played by Agga Poechit) consulted astrologers and fortune tellers to rule the country. Supposedly many other Burmese generals did the same. That’s absurd enough in itself; it’s almost the stuff of satire, but it’s real. That brand of craziness is difficult to downplay, and the same goes for the oppressive cruelty of the military junta.
The problems are apparent with Suu Kyi’s family. They undergo a similar kind of punch-up, but with unfortunate results. It feels hyper-saccharine, synthetic, like drinking a diet cola with a few packs of Splenda mixed in. I have no problem with the family being portrayed as noble or kind, but I do have problems with them being portrayed as simple. They’re a sitcom family rather than real people. While visiting Suu Kyi in Burma during her hunger strike, Michael says dotingly, “There’s never a dull moment in this family.” Suu Kyi shrugs and smiles at him in a cutesy way. Cue the canned laughter, play segue music, cut to commercial.
Everyone speaks in assertions and declarations rather than speaking to one another. Even during intimate moments between Suu Kyi and Michael, they seem to be talking about who they are as characters. I barely recall a moment of actual intimacy between them. If there was one, it was soon undercut by a schmaltzy line about the cause and their importance as symbolic figures. During the late 1990s, Michael was diagnosed with prostate cancer. Even as his health declined, he was continually denied visas to travel to Burma to be with his wife again. Suu Kyi couldn’t leave. There was real love between them, and pain as well, but the movie rarely deals in authentic human tenderness.
Occasionally between declarations and expedient humanity, you have a portentous line that becomes more important. One of Suu Kyi and Michael’s sons says off the cuff that his mom should win an award. Lo and behold, the film uses that as the catalyst for Michael to pursue Suu Kyi’s consideration for the Nobel Peace Prize. Not her own house arrest or starting a political party or anything else would have put the idea in Michael’s head, but their kid’s throwaway line is the neat little trigger that was pulled. It’s so fake a moment, and history is much more complicated than a clean, innocuous sentence.
The film is full of these fake moments. In one scene, while detained in her home, Suu Kyi decides to play the piano. The guards outside seem confused. Michael is outdoors, smoking a cigarette defiantly in front of them. He acknowledges the song, gesticulates, and condescendingly says, “MUUU-SICCC!”, as if he’s talking to martians who know nothing of our Earth pianos.
Besson could have molded the material more, and it’s surprising he didn’t. I wondered whether the stilted performances were more on him than the screenplay. Actors can only go so far in elevating bad material, but maybe they could have made it work with better lines reads or something, anything. Yet Besson’s tone throughout the movie is too fawning and too facile. It’s as if he felt the subject matter would render criticism moot, that the underlying sincerity means more than what winds up on screen. I understand his admiration for Suu Kyi and her family, but there’s more to telling their story than giving it the satiny glow of a Sears portrait.
I think I’m particularly frustrated by The Lady because there is a good movie in this material. If you look at the trailer above, there’s a dignity and gravitas that’s mostly lacking in the film. When they can, Yeoh and Thewlis do elevate the material, but you can only jump so high when you’re yoked by bad writing. Yeoh is particularly good at times when the script allows her to be. She’s graceful and powerful, and there’s a real conviction to the way she carries herself even through the sappy parts.
There are some good scenes in the film. During the regime change of 1988, Suu Kyi witnesses the violent suppression of political protesters and feels a new kinship to the country she hasn’t lived in for years. In the year before her initial house arrest, she travels around Burma to meet the various people of the land that she’ll fight for. Her first political speech is well portrayed, and the recreation of the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony is well done, but even those have wincing moments. (Before taking the stage to deliver her stirring call for Burmese democracy, Suu Kyi tells Michael that she’s never spoken in public before. Groan, cue segue music, roll eyes incredulously.) The movie is better when they stick closer to transcripts rather than invent their own dialogue.
There is one impeccable moment of grace in The Lady that says something vital about who Suu Kyi is. When traveling to make a speech, she finds the stage blocked by a line of Burmese military. Their guns are trained on her and her supporters. Everyone is afraid to move forward, or at least Suu Kyi seems so for a moment. She advances at the line of guns and shuts her eyes. Here is a woman willing to die for her country, making a sacrifice for her people just like her father did years before. There are no neat lines to frame the moment or interrupt it, the fawning by Besson gives way to a genuine, earned admiration. We understand so much about Suu Kyi in that three minutes, it’s a shame it didn’t carry through to the other 129.