When a movie is based on the life of an impressive, important humanitarian, you can feel downright horrible for not liking it. ("How can you criticize that movie? Don't you know how many lives he saved?") That becomes even more difficult when everybody working on the biopic seems to be operating under the best of intentions. Still, I found myself rather frustrated while sitting through "The Lady," which is "The Professional" and "The Fifth Element" director Luc Besson's change-of-pace drama about Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese politician and Nobel Peace Prize recipient. You can't fault the care and sensitivity that goes into every frame. But you can sure fault a lot of the rest.
The film stars Michelle Yeoh as Suu Kyi, and it focuses on her days under house arrest in Burma after she left her home in England (not to mention husband Michael Aris, played by David Thewlis) in the late '80s to care for her sick mother. Angered by Burma's military rule, she became the leader of the National League for Democracy, which made her a champion of the people but an enemy of the government. Trapped in Burma, she continued a long-distance correspondence with her husband in England while trying to bring awareness about Burma's brutal regime.
Suu Kyi has become an international symbol of peaceful resistance -- she's been dubbed the female Gandhi and U2 wrote a song about her -- so it's only natural that eventually a movie would be made about her life. But unfortunately "The Lady," as it title suggests, tends to look at her as little more than an icon. Despite Yeoh's reserved yet emotional performance, this is not a film in which the main character is brought to three-dimensional life. Instead Besson and screenwriter Rebecca Frayn want to emphasize how difficult her struggle was -- and also how difficult it was for her husband and young children, who barely saw her after her arrest.
The problem is that "The Lady's" attempts at dramatizing that struggle often end up pretty heavy-handed. Besson's skill as an action director helps keep things moving along, but he's only rarely been good with characters. (Ironically, when he does do a good job, like on "The Professional," his strongest characters tend to be women.) But at least Suu Kyi comes across as a recognizable human being; the film's main villain, General Ne Win (played by Htun Lin), is a laughably broad baddie who only lacks the twirly mustache to be a complete caricature. As for Thewlis, who's quite good as Suu Kyi's endlessly supportive and loving husband, his strong turn ends up existing in a vacuum. There are two stories going on in "The Lady," and unfortunately neither is that gripping: He goes around trying to figure out how to free her, and she sits around waiting for news.
On one level, that frustration is sort of the point. Besson wants us to understand how glacial the pace of change can be, requiring patience and perseverance. Likewise, Aris and Suu Kyi's relationship was threatened by their years apart, which often consisted of months of silence and uncertainty while Aris worked behind the scenes to secure her freedom. That's a delicate dramatic challenge, but Besson has mostly made the same old inspirational biopic we've come to expect, and that's simply too indelicate to work. The years of anguish and loneliness that Aung San Suu Kyi had to endure are difficult to fathom -- as is the amount of mental and emotional fortitude she must have possessed to overcome those years. Unfortunately, "The Lady" doesn't get us any closer to comprehending such mysteries.