The Lady (2011)

Review first published in S&S Feb 2012

Lady, The

Synopsis: 1947, Rangoon. Burmese independence architect Aung San is assassinated. In 1988, his daughter Aung San Suu Kyi leaves her husband Michael Aris and two sons in Oxford while she visits, ostensibly for “a week, maybe two”, her ailing mother and motherland. Witnessing the ruling junta‘s brutality, Suu Kyi agrees to lead the National League for Democracy, and begins campaigning, joined by her family until Michael is expelled. The junta places Suu Kyi under house arrest, imprisons her colleagues, impedes every attempt by Suu Kyi’s family to visit, and ignores her party’s massive majority in the 1990 elections. Michael continues agitating from Britain, leading to her Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 (awarded in absentia) and her (temporary) release from house arrest in 1994. In 1998, Michael is diagnosed with terminal cancer, but is repeatedly refused a visa to Burma – and with Michael’s consent, Suu Kyi declines to visit him in case she is refused reentry to Burma. Michael dies in 1999. In 2007, though under house arrest, Suu Kyi appears at her gate before a cheering crowd of pro-democracy monks.

Review: “Daddy, tell me a story”, says little Suu Kyi to her father Aung San in the opening scene of The Lady. It is 1947, and hours before Aung San, the architect of Burma’s independence movement, will be coldly assassinated along with his colleagues at a meeting of the Executive Council on post-independence democracy. Aung San proceeds to spin his daughter (in fact just two years old at the time) the “sad story” – half-fairytale, half colonial history – of Burma’s Golden Age, when tigers and elephants reigned and rubies were “redder than your cheeks”, before this idyll was brought to an end by British invasion, oppression and exploitation. Viewers are now primed to expect that this docudrama “based on a true story” will show considerable creative license in its telling.

As much an icon as a person, the adult Aung San Suu Kyi might seem the perfect fit for a heady mix of myth and history. Returning to Burma in 1988 after decades abroad, Suu Kyi (gracefully impersonated by Michelle Yeoh) was catapulted into the leadership of the opposition National League for Democracy more for her father’s revered status than for any “relevant experience” in politics (she then admitted to having none), and spent 15 of the next 24 years sequestered, under house arrest, from her party supporters, the public eye and even her own family. Recognising her symbolic value, the otherwise ruthlessly brutal generals of the ruling junta have kept her alive to ensure that she not be perceived as a martyr. A committed adherent to Gandhi’s principles of non-violent resistance, Suu Kyi has neither the killer instincts nor adventurous pluck of Luc Besson’s fictive heroines Nikita and Adèle Blanc-Sec, nor the warrior status of his Joan of Arc (1999) – although there is one characteristic that she shares with the latter. “The world is united now in declaring you a saint,” observes Suu Kyi’s husband Michael Aris (David Thewlis, who also plays Aris’ twin brother Anthony) – and although Suu Kyi rejects sanctitude, insisting that every saint is also a sinner, her only stated fault is stubbornness, which in this context is no sin at all.

The very qualities that make Suu Kyi so laudable in real life make her a flatly passive character in cinema. The Lady focuses on the tensions between her political and personal life, as she remains in Burma even while her husband is dying of cancer in England and her two sons grow up without her – but it never seriously entertains the idea that her choices might be the wrong ones. Meanwhile, the generals are portrayed as pantomime villains (complete with cartoonishly inharmonious cues in Eric Serra’s score). This may well reflect historical truth, but it makes for unengaging drama. The Lady is a worthy but toothless affair, in need of tigers.

Anton Bitel