Directed by: Luc Besson
Written by: Rebecca Frayn
Starring: Michelle Yeoh and David Thewlis
Writer-Director Luc Besson is probably best known worldwide for his slick action-adventure films. But he’s also always had a love for a strong female lead characters – whether they be kicking ass (LA FEMME NIKITA), predicting the end of humanity (THE FIFTH ELEMENT), or seeking out otherworldly adventure (The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec). The latest female protagonist added to Besson’s oeuvre is THE LADY. She keeps her turmoil inside.
On the surface, Besson may strike you as a surprising choice to bring the story of peaceful crusader Aung San Suu Kyi’s story to life. However, once the film begins, all your preconceived notions fall away, leaving you with an emotionally stirring film about one woman’s courage and unbelievable strength in the face of fear. It’s about fighting for and standing fast in your beliefs, no matter the cost. While it may seem like a fairly small story, THE LADY is large in scale making Besson perfect for the job.
Aung San Suu Kyi (played in her adult years by Michelle Yeoh) was born the daughter of General Aung San, the great instigator of the Burmese revolution that liberated the country in the 1940’s. In one of most defining scenes taking place early in the film, a military junta usurps power and General Aung San is assassinated, setting the scene for the brutal political reign to come. The General’s fierce resoluteness is something his daughter will echo later in the film. We then flash forward in time to 1998 Oxford, England. Michael (David Thewlis) has just gotten news he is dying of prostate cancer with not much time left to live. His wife Suu (as she’s called throughout much of the film) is stuck in Burma. Upon hearing the bad news, and missing his wife tremendously, Michael flashes back in time to 1988 when Suu chooses to answer to her life’s calling and awaken the values her father instilled inside her. While taking care of her ailing elderly mother in Burma, Suu witnesses a horrific and brutal act on a group of protesters. Deciding that this can no longer be tolerated, and with the support and blessing of her family, she stays in Burma to help the plight of her people. Against all odds and with government opposition around every corner, she inspires them to rise up and fight in peaceful protest.
Yeoh gives one of the best performances of her career. She embodies such steadfast grace and elegance while staring down the barrel of a gun. She shows no fear in her effortless portrayal of a still-living heroic icon. She’s a woman who’s not only in the middle of a massive democratic revolution in Burma; she’s also in a personal war on the homefront. She’s caught between her love for her country and her love for her family. Thewlis turns in a pitch-perfect performance as Suu’s husband/ greatest champion. He’s able to flesh out the character into a three dimensional role – neither coming across as too saintly, nor used solely for the purpose of dramatic device.
Thankfully Besson plays things with a steady hand, and shows restraint during moments that could have “gone big” if not tended to properly. This is also a testament to the strong script by Rebecca Frayn. Leaps through time are fluid and handled with ease. There’s not a lot of fat to cut off this meaty story. Plus Thierry Arbogast’s beautiful cinematography depicts the stifling heat and humidity of the country as a parallel to the stifling political climate.
The film’s themes are far reaching and relatable: When do you fight for yourself? How do you know what you’re doing is the right thing? How much can one endure in the face of adversity? In her courageous quest, this LADY is resplendent and inspiring.
THE LADY plays AFI Fest on November 4. The film opens in France on November 30 and in the United States on December 2.