‘The Lady’: Courage personified

April 12, 2012


Winner of the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize, Aung San Suu Kyi is as close to a modern version of Gandhi or Martin Luther King Jr. as you’re likely to find. The fact that she’s still alive – and fighting for democracy in her homeland of Burma – is nothing short of miraculous.

That’s the impression you come away with from Luc Besson’s “The Lady,” a biopic of the woman known as the Steel Orchid. Thanks to a marvelously full-bodied performance by Michelle Yeoh and a complementary one by David Thewlis, “The Lady” overcomes its own obstacles – principally ones of pacing – to present a moving portrait of courage, resilience and conviction.

The daughter of a former Burmese leader, Aung San, who was assassinated in 1947, Aung San Suu Kyi is first presented as a housewife and scholar in London, the wife of an academic, Michael Aris (Thewlis), whose specialty is Tibetan culture. Her country is run by a military junta, seeming madmen who live by superstition and fortune-tellers.

When she gets a call in 1988 that her mother is dying, Suu Kyi returns to Rangoon to care for her – and immediately catches the attention of the rulers. Suspicious and fearful of her motives (as the daughter of a martyr), they follow her every movement.

Suu Kyi is shocked by the violent army response to student protests: shooting point-blank into unarmed crowds. She is quickly drafted by the nascent democracy movement – and becomes a rallying point when the generals seem to give in to people’s will and announce open elections.

Thus begins more than two decades of struggle, in which the harsh regime cracks down, not just on the democracy movement but on Suu Kyi herself. She eventually is placed under house arrest, cut off from her family in England and unable to communicate with her followers. But she continues, convinced that her mission to bring human rights and intellectual freedom to her people outweighs her own well-being.

Behind the scenes, Aris works to help her, engineering a plan to secure her the Nobel Peace Prize, in hopes that winning it will afford her a certain measure of protection. The film’s most moving scene features Aris and their two sons accepting the award in Oslo, as Suu Kyi surreptitiously listens on a battery-powered radio in Burma – and joins in on piano when an orchestra in Norway plays her favorite piece of music, Pachelbel’s “Canon.”

The love story between Aris and Suu serves as the centerpiece of the film and its framing device. The film begins with Aris’ diagnosis of terminal prostate cancer, before jumping backward in time to tell the rest of the story. The couple’s eventual struggle – to get him a visa to see her before he dies – ultimately slows the film; you know what Besson is going for, but it makes the film drag because it simply goes on too long.

Still, this is a startling film choice for Besson, best known for such slam-bang outings as “The Professional” and “La Femme Nikita” and as the guiding spirit behind “The Transporter,” “District B13,” and other high-octane and imaginative entertainment. Here, he brings a calmer approach, unafraid to deal with the emotions – almost to the point of halting the film to savor them. Not that he’s lost his touch for action: The various brutal acts by the junta’s soldiers are envisioned with a dynamic camera and an almost percussive quality, a sense of the danger of random and arbitrary violence.

Yeoh brings a glowing compassion to this role, one that can’t mask her interior questioning, as her mission comes into direct conflict with her need to care for her children and her sick husband. It’s not Yeoh’s fault that Besson seems obsessed with scenes in which Suu Kyi bravely faces some new obstacle with silent tears; it’s to her credit that she does it effortlessly and naturally.

Thewlis, with a wavy hairstyle that makes him a dead ringer for John Sayles, captures the sense of trepidation, concern and overwhelming love this man has for his admirable and seemingly unstoppable wife. It’s not easy living with a saint; Thewlis shows us the toll that can take on the people around her.

“The Lady” is a fascinating look at a story that continues to unfold. (Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest in 2010 and, recently, was elected to the Burmese Parliament.) It’s compelling viewing, a story that has global implications and which can’t help but move you with its story of one woman’s bravery and strength.

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