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21.4.12

For Your Consideration: 'The Lady'

Luc Besson's new film, released last fall in France, offers an account of the life of Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese democracy activist and now politician. It has many of the appealing qualities of this sort of inspiring historical biopic: victories won through perseverance and dignity and sweeping views of exotic landscapes (cinematography by Thierry Arbogast, with Thailand standing in for Burma, which is still mostly a closed nation). The film is apparently true to life, tracing Suu's life from the assassination of her father, Aung San, often considered the founder of modern Burma; through her marriage to Oxford don Michael Aris, with whom she had two sons; her unexpected return to her native country after many years of living abroad, where she was quickly enlisted into the campaign to return Burma to democracy after years of military rule; and her commitment to her political work in Burma, in spite of the toll it took on her family. Besson even includes some actual footage shot by Burmese journalists who have ended up in prison because of their connections to Suu's NLD movement.

The problem is that The Lady should be a much better film than it is. Besson is a frustrating filmmaker, having made extremely strange and yet powerful and beautiful films like Le Grand Bleu and stylish thrillers like La Femme Nikita and Léon (The Professional) early in his career, but since The Fifth Element having made nothing really memorable or even enjoyable. Rebecca Frayn's screenplay telescopes an enormous life somewhat awkwardly, stalling about half-way through and falling short in many ways (not least, in some less than inspiring dialogue). The movie founders when it shifts from a story of Burma to Suu's personal tragedy: Michael is diagnosed with cancer, and she is unable to return to England to see him before he dies, knowing that the military government would never allow her to return to the country.


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The hollowness at the film's center is disappointing since the cast generally does well, beginning with the radiant, noble Aung San Suu Kyi of Michelle Yeoh (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon). Her husband is played with donnish reserve by David Thewlis (best known as Prof. Lupin in the Harry Potter movies), who also plays Michael's twin brother by cinematic sleight of hand. Besson, on some level, had to have been dreaming of some sort of battle featuring these two actors, perhaps with wands on the tops of the famous spires of Oxford. Then there are the Besson tics: it would not be a Besson film without a montage to a pop song (footage of monks marching in Rangoon to the strains of When Love Comes to Town, by U2 and B.B. King; the credits roll to Sade's Soldier of Love). Classical music, regrettably, is featured represented by the Pachelbel chestnut Canon in D.

The history of Burma and Aung San Suu Kyi was the backdrop of John Boorman's Beyond Rangoon, where it was seen principally through the eyes of an American woman (Patricia Arquette) visiting her sister in Rangoon. That movie was a flop in box office terms but had much in it to enjoy, in fact doing a much better job than Besson's film at giving a sense of Burma and its people, especially through the amazing performance of Arquette's local tour guide, U Aung Ko. (For a less hagiographical approach to the subject matter, there is also the recent documentary They Call It Myanmar, which I have not seen.)

Shortcomings or not, the film deals with a subject that cannot help but be inspiring. Although the screenplay does not continue to the present day, Suu's struggle continues. Suu lived under house arrest until 2010, when the government finally released her, and she continues to fight for democracy, just this month arguing over conditions allowing her to take a seat in the Burmese parliament, after the political party of her movement, the NLD, won 43 or the 45 available seats in the recent election. Although she is cautious in her optimism, Suu's willingness to leave Burma for a foreign trip, even she admits, is a good sign that Burma is moving in the right direction, toward democracy.

This film is now playing at Landmark Bethesda Row and other area theaters.

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