The Lady: Toronto Review

Vincent Perez/EuropaCorp/Left Bank Pictures/France 2 Cinema
French action auteur Luc Besson shows few signs of being at home in this uncustomary genre.

Luc Besson trades his usual muscular action and pumped-up visual style for a stately inspirational epic.

Luc Besson trades his usual muscular action and pumped-up visual style for a stately inspirational epic in The Lady, a biographical drama about Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese freedom fighter and Nobel Peace Prize winner who challenged the country’s oppressive regime. Presumably, Besson responded to something in the story that prompted him to step outside his comfort zone, but exactly what that was is unclear in this well-intentioned but pedestrian retelling of a stirring true story.

Prime weakness is British filmmaker/novelist Rebecca Frayn’s by-the-numbers screenplay. With wooden dialogue and little sense of narrative economy, the overlong film trudges through decades of turbulent recent history via an approach that’s part old-fashioned miniseries and part simplistic after-school special.

It covers the Burmese student protests of the late 1980s; the violent reprisals by the military junta; the intimidation tactics intended to suppress the nascent democratic movement led by Suu Kyi (Michelle Yeoh); her 15 years under house arrest in the family compound, even after she was lawfully elected; and the military leaders’ continuing refusal to acknowledge international pressure to transition to a people’s government.

But the film’s focus is as much personal as political. It centers on the enduring love and comradeship of Suu Kyi and her English husband, Michael Aris (David Thewlis), a professor of Tibetan and Himalayan Studies at Oxford. Suu Kyi made tremendous sacrifices for her political convictions, standing her ground at the cost of being separated from her family and unable to be with her husband even as he was dying of cancer.

A 1947 prologue takes place just months before the declaration of independence from the British Empire is signed, as Suu Kyi’s father and his fellow officers are gunned down by a military squad while planning the formation of a new government. Forty years later, Suu Kyi is living in Oxford with her husband and two teenage sons when her mother has a stroke, forcing her to return to Rangoon as unrest mounts against the regime of General Ne Win (Htun Lin). Approached by students and university faculty to continue her late father’s work and end Burma’s reign of brutality, Suu Kyi embraces her heritage.

While the swell of support for the non-violent democratic movement is punctuated by military crackdowns, brutality, bureaucratic obstruction and flagrant human-rights violations, Besson and Frayn’s chronicle of those years plods along as if dutifully ticking off events on a historical timeline.

The shocking injustices of the true story inevitably make it touch chords, but the emotional moments that resonate most stem from Thewlis’ tender depiction of Michael’s unwavering devotion and tireless campaigning on his wife’s behalf. Yeoh radiates regality, poise, compassion and quiet conviction, but never generates much of a charge. As if taking her cue from the film’s generic title, hers is a stiff, somewhat remote performance that never quite measures up to descriptions of Suu Kyi as “the female Mandela” or “the steel orchid.”

Shot by Thierry Arbogast in Thailand near the Burmese border with limited covert filming in Rangoon, The Lady does boast handsome visuals, the South Asian landscapes nicely contrasted with the gray stone structures of Oxford. But despite composer Eric Serra’s strenuous efforts to instill some emotional sweep, the earnest film can’t escape its dramatic inertia.

Venue: Toronto International Film Festival
Production companies: EuropaCorp, Left Bank Pictures, France 2 Cinema
Cast: Michelle Yeoh, David Thewlis, Jonathan Raggett, Jonathan Woodhouse, Susan Wooldridge, Benedict Wong, Htun Lin, Agga Poechit
Director: Luc Besson
Screenwriter: Rebecca Frayn
Producer: Virginie Besson-Silla, Andy Harries
Director of photography: Thierry Arbogast
Production designer: Hugues Tissandier
Music: Eric Serra
Costume designer: Olivier Beriot
Editor: Julien Rey
Sales: EuropaCorp
No rating, 143 minutes