Luc Besson goes highbrow with his latest directorial effort with his biopic of Burmese leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
At a certain point in The Lady, Luc Besson’s biopic about Burmese freedom fighter Aung San Suu Kyi, the protagonist manages to find a quiet moment with her husband, the Oxford academic Michael Aris (David Thewlis). The pair are stood on her balcony, her having found him away from the chaos of a political campaign that was threatening to overthrow a brutal military dictatorship. Here they affirm their undying love for each other, while discussing the horrible compromise that she’s had to take to liberate her country. Aris affirms that, despite all the hardship, this fight is one that they will fight together; no matter how long the distance might be from Oxford to Rangoon, or how many times their visas are turned down by the regime. They discuss the worldwide fame her struggle has gained her, and the nicknames she has been given by journos desperate for a snappy phrase. She turns into his embrace and says: ‘you know I don’t much like personality cults’. And yet the film succeeds in contributing to that very same cult, and it’s that central contradiction that renders The Lady such an ultimately unfulfilling experience: while its two leads handle their roles with panache, and it’s certainly effective at tugging your heartstrings, Besson’s less than subtle direction leaves you feeling manipulated.
These days the name Aung San Suu Kyi (excellently played by Michelle Yeoh) is so well known that it generates empty platitudes from politicians whose own actions stamp on the good name of freedom. David Cameron describes her as ‘an inspiration for all of us who believe in freedom of speech, democracy and human rights, while she’s a ‘hero of mine and a source of inspiration’ for Barack Obama, who presumably thought that her being under house arrest and surrounded by armed fascists was a model for his time in office. However, we begin with the assassination her of father – Aung San, who fought against the British Empire and was a major figure in Burmese independence – when she was only two-years-old, before jumping to her domesticated life as an Oxford housewife in 1988, four decades later (she also worked for the UN in her time, and studied philosophy, political science and economics at Oxford). It’s here that we set the scene for the rest of the film: a dedicated wife and mother torn between love for her adoring family and the fight for freedom in her homeland. Upon returning home to look after her ailing mother, she sees the savage repression of demonstrating students by General Ne Win’s regime, with shot and beaten students followed into the hospital by the bloodthirsty army. From here her meteoric rise to leader of the Burmese Democracy movement is assured, while her supportive family look forlornly on from afar, kept apart for long periods as she is detained under house arrest. But here lies the central problem: there’s no real sense of the political struggle that has dominated the last 24 years of her life, nor do we feel the intense isolation that being under 24-hour armed guard in your own home must engender. Only once do we get close: when she and her housemaid frantically search for means to listen to the 1991 Nobel Prize for Peace ceremony, which was accepted on her behalf by her family.
Moments that capture what a struggle it must have been to be separated from your loved ones for such long periods of time are the film’s strongest.
The other real issue is the regime, or the ‘bad guys’ as Besson calls them in the press pack dished out to us. This is a regime that Amnesty International accuses of murder and rape, which has gripped on to power despite losing by a landslide to our heroine in the country’s first election, way back in 1991, and which has dozens of political prisoners under lock and key. And yet the general which runs this regime – a superstitious madman who seeks advice from mystics, shoots inadequate underlings and who sparked the student uprisings by insisting all money must come in denominations containing the number nine, rendering the universities unable to provide lunch – comes across not as a terrifying, murderous dictator, but a buffoon. A two-dimensional buffoon at that. We’re saved by the tremendous performances from Michelle Yeoh and Thewlis, whose relationship holds the story together. Thewlis in particular is excellent as ‘the most indulgent husband in the world’, and manages to counterbalance the price Aris feels in his wife’s political struggle with the heartache that being so far apart brings. It should also be said that he plays his twin brother with equal aplomb, so much so that I thought that they were two different actors.
Those moments that capture what a struggle it must have been to be separated from your loved ones for such long periods of time are the film’s strongest; the period in which Aris’ health deteriorates is genuinely harrowing, made more so by the regime’s refusal to allow the family a visa to visit Burma. Here too is possibly the only time where the struggle outside is conveyed through Daw Suu’s struggle within. The regime explains that they can’t suffer the cost of looking after her ill husband, but offers her a way: take the first flight out to England. Well aware that this would mean that she would never be able to return, she explains that various outside agencies have offered to take care of him. ‘You are free to choose madam, between your husband and your children, and your country,’ says the functionary. To which she replies ‘And what kind of freedom is that?’
‘I was very interested in the human element,’ said Besson at the press conference afterwards, charging us with the mission of taking his art making politics with it. ‘How can you leave your husband and child? I want to understand how you can take such a decision… the political aspect is the background of the story. I didn’t escape it (sic), but I didn’t focus on it. My purpose was really the human dimension, because I think that through her story we can learn something.’ It’s a shame that through her story he didn’t manage to say more about a struggle for basic human rights which still goes on to this day, nor about the colonialism – our colonialism – which left Burma such fertile land for megalomaniacs. Because a film with this lack of depth can never do justice to the lady herself.
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