Friday, 30 December 2011

The Lady

Upon first hearing of the production of The Lady I was struck with excitement. After all, how many living people on this planet are more deserving of the cinematic biopic treatment than Aung San Suu Kyi? With such heavyweight talents as Luc Besson, Michelle Yeoh and David Thewlis involved the omens were good that her story would receive the respect and quality befitting of her status as one of the most important freedom fighting figures of her generation. However, the initial critical response seemed to suggest that the finished product has turned out to be a wasted opportunity. With many high profile western critics implying that Besson had delivered a lack lustre and mediocre film that offers little more than a watered down version of The Lady's life. 

With my expectations lowered I was pleasantly surprised to find that Besson may have actually created his finest work so far. While only time will tell whether his latest will continue to delight in the same way as Leon(1994) still does nearly 18 years later, I believe that it will indeed, due to the gravity of the story and the importance that Aung San Suu Kyi has played (and will hopefully continue to play) in the fight for democracy in one of the most oppressive countries in the world.

The Lady opens with a tender scene set in 1947 in Rangoon wherein Bogyoke Aung San (a key figure in Burma's independence) describes to his young daughter the natural beauty and majesty of their country before explaining how the country has suffered under British rule for many years. This is followed by the brutal killing of Aung San, leaving the young Aung San Suu Kyi fatherless. This juxtaposition between tenderness and brutality is one that permeates the entire film, from the non-violent rhetoric of the Suu Kyi led National League of Democracy campaign during the 1990 elections to the crushingly violent Military Junta that has ruled Burma with an iron fist since 1962. Indeed it is the combination of her parents fame in Burma with Suu Kyi's compassionate nature that prompts her gradual change from a wife and mother of two children in Oxford to the figurehead of the fight for democracy in Burma. 

One of the most key elements of this style of biopic is the central performance. Michelle Yeoh has always been an undoubted talent and shown great presence in her previous roles, however she has never tackled a role like this before. If there were any doubts that she was up to the challenge then these are dispelled very early on. In a similar way to Will Smith in Ali(2001) and Ben Kingsley in Gandhi(1982) , Yeoh manages to subdue her own very distinct cinematic persona and embody her character completely. While it may be a cliché to say it, you soon lose the sense that you are watching Yeoh play Suu Kyi, rather the effect is like watching the real life Suu Kyi play herself in a reconstruction of her own life. 

Speaking of Gandhi the similarities are not hidden by Besson, in fact in an early scene Yeoh can be seen reading a book on Gandhi's life, a source of inspiration for Suu Kyi's political style. Like Richard Atttenborough's take on Gandhi, another famed non-violent individual sacrificing their own well-being in search of freedom for their people, Besson contrasts simple and intimately shot scenes of the protagonists personal life with grandly shot and at times awes-inspiring scenes of key public events. This style works as well here as it did for Attenborough, allowing us to get a better sense of the pain inherent in Suu Kyi's choice between the family she loves and needs, and the country that she loves and that needs her so badly. This in turn allows Besson to express the heart-breaking nature of her personal sacrifice whilst never losing sight of the great trauma that the military Junta has inflicted on Burma for so many years.

The film cuts between the events in Burma since her return in 1988 and her husband attempting to help her fight from England. David Thewlis does a great job as Suu Kyi's husband Michael Aris, conveying the agony of separation from the women he loves whilst showing the understanding that the greater good must come before their own personal pain. Thewlis expresses the strain the events shown in the film have on Aris's own life without overplaying it. It is a very interesting element of the film to see Aris quietly but determinedly attempting to find ways to expose the truth of the events in Burma to the rest of the world. Even after the great exposure of the Nobel Peace Prize he helps to secures for her in 1991, he soon comes to realise that even attention of this magnitude wont be enough by itself to free his wife from house arrest let alone the Burmese people from the tyranny of military rule. 

In more recent years the plight of Burma has been more widely documented in western media, with documentaries like VJ Burma(2008) containing footage smuggled out of the country, Zoya Phan's heart-breaking memoir Little Daughter(2009) and the story of Myo Myint in the powerful documentary Burma Soldier(2010) giving us more of an insight into the dilemmas facing the country. Taking this media attention into account what Besson's film conveys very well is the extremely slow process of creating meaningful change in the world. As Thewlis explains to a Burmese student excited by the initial arrival of Suu Kyi back to her homeland in 1988, democracy in Burma will not be claimed over night.

 One obvious flaw with the film is the omission of many important moments in Suu Kyi's life, including the well documented arrival of the American trespasser to Suu Kyi's home, her subsequent brief prison sentence and trial. As the arc of the film is hung on the relationship between Suu Kyi and her husband his eventual fate brings the film to a halt, the many important events after this are largely ignored. If Gandhi got four hours to have his story told on film then surely Aung Suu Kyi deserves at least three. While this decision allows Besson to wrap up the narrative as neatly as possible it is a shame the story didn't continue and present this as a definitive and up to date film of her life and Burma's situation. After all, the nations fate is still very much in the balance and Suu Kyi hasn't finished in her personal crusade to give the power of Burma back to its people, so is this attempt at narrative closure really necessary? 

The Lady has been released in the UK during a post-christmas period that has so far only offered a rare mediocre effort from David Fincher with The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, Guy Richie going through the motions again with a second Sherlock Holmes movie and everyone's favourite scientologist still beating a horse that already perished many years ago (Mission Impossible-Ghost of Tom Cruises Career Protocol). With any justice it would be Besson's picture that would stand out in this crowd, however with a lack of media exposure and a mainly drab critical response it is unlikely to receive the attention it deserves (at the very least Michelle Yeoh should be nominated for best actress in the circus that is the Oscars). As the title card at the end of the movie states, many courageous video journalists risk incarceration and potential death to get footage and information out of Burma to us. Hopefully enough people pay attention that the process of installing a democratic system that the people of Burma seem to crave so desperately and truly deserve, will gather some speed. Whether or not this will happen in Aung San Suu Kyi's lifetime is debatable, however her wide reaching influence and inspiring spirit cannot be debated.

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