Dramatic movies “based on a true story” have a tendency to degenerate into what is sometimes indelicately referred to as “human rights porn”. Events are rewritten to maximize the dramatic impact; shades of grey are eliminated, sometimes to the point that the villains are almost cartoonish; if led by a Strong Female Character there’s usually a romantic subplot jammed in. Thankfully, in adapting The Lady from the story of Aung San Suu Kyi, Luc Besson has steered away from most of these excesses.
Like many people, I’ve been vaguely aware of Suu Kyi and the situation in Burma, but I haven’t been particularly clear on the details. Besson’s film is far from a perfect representation of what has happened, but it does a fair job of familiarizing the audience with the general contours of the story. It manages to raise awareness without going overboard into melodrama.
The early life of Aung San Suu Kyi (Michelle Yeoh) actually reads sort of like that of a Besson heroine: the daughter of an important man who was assassinated, growing up away from her home, and returning to overthrow those who brought down her father. Unusually for Besson, she is committed to nonviolence, following the model of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mohandas Ghandi.
Suu Kyi’s father, Aung San, led the struggle for Burmese independence from Britain, which culminated in 1947. Before his shadow government could assume power in an orderly fashion as the British left, they were killed by a group of red-scarved paramilitaries. It’s not clear from the film that they were acting under the direction of the former colonial prime minister.
Forty years later, Suu Kyi is living in Oxford, married to Dr. Michael Aris (David Thewlis), a professor of Southeast Asian history, and mother to Kim (Jonathan Raggett) and Alex (Jonathan Woodhouse). When her mother falls ill, she returns to Rangoon — now Yangon — to care for her. At the same time, the current military leader steps down amid democratic uprisings sweeping the nation, and Suu Kyi comes face to face with the violence and abuses that plague her homeland. As her father’s daughter, she feels compelled to continue his struggle towards freedom for Burma.
Aung San’s death had made him a martyr — the demonstrators even wave framed pictures of Suu Kyi’s father — and so the new junta that took over was loath to make Suu Kyi another one. Instead, they turned her family’s estate into a sort of mausoleum, locking her into house arrest in the hopes that she would be forgotten.
Much of the film dwells on how this enforced separation weighed on Suu Kyi and her family, both from her perspective and from theirs. Unfortunately, it seems to focus a bit too heavily on Aris’ part in promoting her cause from the outside — meeting with diplomats around the world and pushing her consideration for the Nobel Peace Prize which she received in 1991 — than on her efforts within Burma.
I can understand that watching a woman sit around the house may not make for a very engaging film, but what’s not clear from the film is that she actually spent many periods under house arrest, interspersed with periods of relative freedom to move about the country. Little is made of what she was doing when she wasn’t isolated other than making contact with her family. And once Aris passes away in 1999 the only coverage of the next thirteen years is some stock footage of the Saffron Revolution in 2007 and an intertitle card explaining that she was (most recently) released from house arrest in 2010.
But, to be fair, what else are you going to do onscreen with a dozen years of not much change? If only they’d held off making the film a couple more years — three weeks ago, Aung San Suu Kyi won a seat in the lower house of the Burmese Parliament along with the leadership of the opposition party and she is slated to take her seat next Monday. These are historic times for Burma, and The Lady — while not absolutely clear on the details — helps shed light to a Western audience what has led up to this point.
Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.