'Tis the season for biopics about historic figures charging forth into the unknown, regardless of the consequences. Luc Besson's addition to the genre, The Lady, stars Michelle Yeoh as Burma's "Steel Orchid," Aung San Suu Kyi. The daughter of the general considered to have brought Burma into the modern age, Suu Kyi returned to the country to take care of her sick mother and never left, ending up the General Secretary of the National League of Democracy. Although this film can be considered another "woman juggles family and career" picture, its human interest angle elevates it far past any trivial fictional tale. That's also its saving grace in the way of watchability, too. Luc Besson, cinema's action/adventure/fancy shoot 'em up guy, is a weird choice to direct a film like this, but the tale is so inspiring that it manages to give meaning to a clunky picture.
Here's what is wrong with the movie: it is fully committed to tugging at your heartstrings, so audiences get to see plenty of injustice, human rights violations and sad children at every opportunity. It all unfolds just as Screenwriting 101 demands it, so it's easy to get caught up in the familiar "rise above, against all odds" plot. But viewers, especially if they're familiar with the real life story, probably won't be able to shake the feeling that they're really not learning anything juicy. Like Eastwood's most recent film J. Edgar, it all feels very polite and at arm's length.
Here's what is great about the movie: Suu Kyi's story is phenomenal. Michelle Yeoh and David Thewlis (playing Suu Kyi's husband Michael Aris) are fantastic actors that bring as much movie soul as possible to this incredible tale. While most people can't see beyond the walls of their own cubicle, people like Suu Kyi are sacrificing everything--their freedom, families, and own lives--to help bring a better life to the people of an entire nation. Have you noticed there's no OccupyBurma protest going on right now? That's because if there were, the people involved would be subjected to endless horrors far worse than rubber bullets and nights in jail--this place needed someone to speak up for it, and Suu Kyi was that person. Yeoh is always good for a dignified, beautiful performance and serves as a graceful vessel for this amazing story. Together with Thewlis, the two create a tragic love story that reminds audiences that sometimes the needs of the many must outweigh the needs of the few.
Biopics must lend more context and emotion to a story than their entry in an encyclopedia. The Lady just barely ekes by in that respect. The movie ends up being hard to recommend due to its long run time and unwillingness to get its hands dirty, but it was better and obviously more meaningful than I Don't Know How She Does It (one of the more recent "sisters are doing it for themselves" movies). Although strangely, with both films, I still don't know how they do it.