Time Out says
Dir: Luc Besson (2012, 132 min). Cast: Michelle Yeoh, David Thewlis, Jonathan Raggett. Opens: May 3
Biopic is a tricky genre to get right because viewers already know the ending from the get-go. So filmmakers have to rely on the story’s vivacity and skills of their cast to retell a historical drama. But how do you humanise a saint who’s celebrated across the world? How do you do justice to Aung San Suu Kyi – democracy advocate, Nobel Peace Prize laureate and a consummate intellectual – by summarising her steely defiance against the military junta in a 132-minute film? You can’t. Not even with the magic of Luc Besson – the French action movie director who tried assiduously to evoke personal poignancy within this film.
To be fair, Luc Besson didn’t paint this as a political story but a laudation of Suu Kyi’s self-sacrificing resistance, heroic patience and love for her family. An early scene reveals the demise of Suu’s father, Aung San, who’s assassinated by the Burmese army in 1947, leaving the nation to the repressive dictatorship under the military coup. The story sprints ahead to Suu Kyi’s life in England, where she lives with her husband Michael Aris (David Thewlis) and their two sons. When she returns to Burma to care for her dying mother, the junta’s roughshod treatment and bloody massacre triggered Suu Kyi to put herself forward as an opposition leader. This eventually leads her to a house arrest which lasted (with breaks) from 1989 to 2010.
If a successful imitation of accent and gait could unlock the secrets of a convincing biopic, then Michelle Yeoh has done a remarkable job. She slips comfortably into Suu Kyi’s skin, reproducing every syllable, every beatific smile, every halting hum and haw with precision. Michelle’s physical resemblance is a bonus – her stalwart beauty mirrors Suu Kyi’s saintly elegance…until the camera glides in for the innumerable close-ups, which shattered our belief. Luc Besson wants so much for us to see that the perfectly cast Michelle is Suu Kyi but here we are, looking at Michelle as the Dato’, the Bond Girl, the Ipoh girl who’s just an actress.
The tension in the film is amplified with the one-dimensional acting of General Ne Win (Htun Lin), who orders killings at his whim. But behind Suu Kyi’s perilous counter-violence movement is a man who battles for his wife’s freedom, and against his own’s cancer. Aris is the tousled academic, the auxiliary to Suu Kyi’s democratic pursuit, the refuge for our Lady to fall back on during her emotional anguish. But it is the over-emphasis of their relationship that hinders us from believing in this supposedly amazing biopic. And since ‘The Lady’ is meant to depict Suu Kyi’s personal life, the exchange of dialogue between the husband-and-wife comes across as staged. Even their declaration of ‘I love you’s functions nothing more than a disappointing colloquy to act out their relationship.
The real Aung San Suu Kyi has the ability to evince calmness within the tumult; to embolden the people of Burma to fight alongside her. Michelle’s unflagging commitment to re-enact these key moments is evident but the poorly stringed plots in ‘The Lady’ ruined it for her. The story doesn’t work towards a climax (if there’s one) and the film seems to be just recreating scenes that are worth recounting. It’s a tiresome paean which could’ve turned out to be less awkward and more inspiring.
It is through biopics that we learn about a person’s history, triumph and fall. A successful one would make you want to travel back in time and experience what our characters have lived through. It’s disheartening that ‘The Lady’ is so close to earning that success. Unfortunately, the film just didn’t carry the emotional wallop we expected. Kong Wai Yeng