Better directors than Luc Besson have been ground into mush by the demands of the prestige biopic, but given Besson’s career-long affinity for visual flash and breathless storytelling, it’s especially disappointing that The Lady is so ordinary. Besson and screenwriter Rebecca Frayn set out to tell the story of Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Prize-winning activist who spent more than a decade under house arrest while helping lead the Burmese democracy movement. Michelle Yeoh plays Suu Kyi, the daughter of the political leader Aung San, who fought for Burma’s independence in the ’40s before being assassinated. David Thewlis plays Suu Kyi’s husband, Michael Aris, an Oxford professor she met while studying abroad. After a brief glimpse of Suu Kyi as a girl, The Lady jumps to the late ’80s, when she returned home to attend to her ailing mother and got swept up in the student-led “8888 Uprising” against Burma’s military dictatorship. Suu Kyi became an inspirational figure to her countrymen, and stayed in Burma to run for office, even after the deported Aris became riddled with cancer.
This is an inspiring and important story, but worthiness doesn’t automatically equal quality. Had Besson looked for unexpected ways into Suu Kyi’s life, or even had he indulged his old impulses and made a slick, surface-y Luc Besson movie, then The Lady might’ve been more memorable. It might’ve been memorably awful, true, but in a way that’d be preferable to the straight-down-the-middle approach Besson takes to Frayn’s script. Yeoh carries herself with her usual steely grace, while Thewlis gets some of the film’s best scenes, as Aris works back home to bring his wife’s plight to international attention by openly lobbying people with Nobel connections. The Lady is at its strongest when it shows Suu Kyi and Aris sharing a few personal moments, behaving as though she’s just on a long business trip, not being held against her will by armed guards. But at the same time, the emphasis on Suu Kyi as a daughter, wife, and mother reduces the complexity of global politics to a case of one iron-willed martyr making sacrifices as she stands firm against a vague menace. Besson and Frayn hit the high points of Suu Kyi’s triumphant, tragic life, but they connect those dots with thick, straight lines, while a movie like this needs more shading and curlicues.