Born in 1945, Suu Kyi was the daughter of Burmese royalty; her father Aung San founded the Burmese army in 1947 before being assassinated by his rivals. Raised in Rangoon but educated internationally, she cultivated a strong sense of social and political awareness from both her mother and father, while marrying Dr. Michael Aris (Thewlis) and raising two sons with him in London. In 1988, she returned to Burma to care for her sick mother; simultaneously, the leader of the ruling party, General Ne Win, stepped down, and the people asked her to represent a movement towards democracy. Although the first election resulted in a landslide victory for the National League of Democracy, Ne Win refused to honor the results, and placed Suu Kyi under house arrest for 15 of the next 21 years.
Without a doubt, the best reason to watch “The Lady” is Michelle Yeoh’s performance in the title role. While as a person – much less a character – Suu Kyi exudes steadfast commitment and nobility, Yeoh elevates her modesty and her resoluteness to dimensions that we can actually care about. It’s certainly to the film’s benefit that the subject matter inspires automatic outrage, but Yeoh is our anchor to something specific and relatable. Meanwhile, Thewlis contributes his usual gravitas as her endlessly patient husband, and makes the most out of less than imaginative lines like, “If they think they’re going to scare me, then they’ve got another think coming!” His part in the film is atypically the less showy one, but he gets inside the cardigan-clad academic husband and makes him Suu Kyi’s equal, even if it’s occasionally tough to figure out whether he’s bored as an actor, or merely laid back as a character.
Otherwise, the film feels flatter than it probably should given the subject matter, but even if it’s relatively accurate, one imagines that Suu Kyi and her family’s lives were probably a lot like they are shown in the film – long stretches of inactivity, rejection and longing, punctuated by either violence, or less often, relief. (That said, it’s still not clear why Besson felt compelled to include a small handful of scenes in which Thewlis plays both Michael and his identical twin brother Anthony, expect perhaps to show audiences how seamlessly he could pull off the technical feat of doing so.) Ultimately, the prestige picture is a respectable effort from Besson, and certainly serves as evidence that good or bad, his films have been sorely missed in Hollywood since he returned to France to create his empire of action films and family adventures. But like his choice of song for the closing credits, Sade’s “Soldier of Love,” “The Lady” manages to be both boring in its predictability and overestimate the emotional connections it created in its telling, leaving audiences with a clearer sense of Burmese history, but too much bureaucracy for them to care deeply about it. [B-]