How do you tell the life story of a saint? In the old days, the formula for a Christian hagiography was simple: isolation, a hint of torment, prayer and the timely intervention of God. But when the saint is Buddhist, and Burmese, and has a husband, you make something rather more like Luc Besson’s The Lady, a flawed but moving biopic of Aung San Suu Kyi that arrives in theaters just as the lady herself has finally been freed and elected to the role in Burma’s political life she has long deserved.
I have to be blunt: a lot of what I enjoyed about the movie was simply that it looked different from Hollywood’s normal white monochrome. I adore Michelle Yeoh, who’s nailed Aung San Suu Kyi’s gestures and body language to a ridiculous extent here, and I appreciated that the movie showed her, for example, sweating through silk blouses as she campaigns or as she heads to the British Embassy for yet another call home to Michael that will be interrupted by Burma’s wiretappers. Rather than erasing differences between the Burmese people Suu works with and the kind of Western folks we see on TV, Besson rests in them. The woman who runs Suu’s house through her years of exile wears a kind of face paint that, as it later becomes clear in the movie’s long province-based campaign sequences, is a sign membership in one of Burma’s regional ethnic groups. Suu’s male advisors are mostly dudes who are shorter than she is. No one’s exceptionally handsome or beautiful, and the Burmese soldiers who enforce Suu’s house arrest aren’t particularly ripped or menacing. They’re all just people, and it’s so nice to have the vast majority of them be non-white.
Half the movie, though, is dedicated to one white dude: Michael Aris (David Thewlis, less angsty here than as Remus Lupin in the Harry Potter movies), Suu’s husband, who raised their children in England during her years of house arrest, campaigned for her Nobel Peace Price, and stayed steadfast during their years of separation. He died of prostate cancer in England after the Burmese regime grotesquely denied him a visa on the grounds that the country couldn’t possibly provide adequate medical care during his stay and suggested Suu leave. The lead-up to that final decision to stick with principle, for Suu and Michael to embrace the love of Burma that was the core of their marriage even if it denied them a final good-bye, is the core of the movie.
And that’s both the strength and the weakness of The Lady, a political drama that is inherently and necessarily a domestic drama. Before her arrest, Suu travels the country in one of the few sequences I wish had been a more developed exploration of Burma’s politics rather than a slide show. But afterwards, she’s mostly alone, and the same sequences repeat over and over: calls to Michael and the boys, the boys clenched in her arms when they can get to Burma, pulled tight to Michael when they return, or when the family suffers an emotionally crippling setback. These sequences aren’t unaffecting, but they lose their impact on repetition, and made me wish that we could have swapped several of them out in exchange for more scenes with Suu’s advisors or with the clandestine political networks they mobilize. It’s a joy seeing information move from person to person in defiance of the brutal regime, and I wish we had a better sense of the people who set those networks in motion, who went to jail while Suu endured a more comfortable house arrest (she apparently told Besson that his favorite movie of hers was The Fifth Element).
But there’s no denying that the story’s tremendous. And there’s something very valuable about having The Lady hit theaters just at the time that Aung San Suu Kyi’s taking her seat in Burma’s parliament. If nothing else, it’s a reminder of what she was subjected to. The military junta may have been dissolved, and President Thein Sein may be making surprising and encouraging moves. But that history is far from expunged, and now, more than ever, is a time to remember it with hope for the future and a fierce determination not to return to the past.