As solemn and dignified as its subject, this based-on-real-events biography of Burmese political activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi (Michelle Yeoh) is more about patiently passive resistance than rousingly revolutionary rebellion. Director Luc Besson, best known for producing shoot-’em-up action fare such as the Transporter trilogy, admirably resists any impulse to turn Suu Kyi’s lengthy struggle into a to-the-battlements thriller. Although the movie begins with a high-bodycount assassination and includes some police-state brutality, most of the running time is more Gandhi than gunhappy.
This means the two-hours-plus film sometimes plays like a respectful history lecture, but Suu Kyi’s story is undeniably an important one. As the daughter of a progressive general who was slain by oppressive rivals, Suu Kyi returns to the country as an adult to challenge the authority of its dictatorial military rulers by running for office. She is detained under house arrest both before and after the elections, in which her party receives an overwhelming majority of votes but is prevented from assuming control of the government.
The emotional heart of the story involves Suu Kyi’s lengthy forced separations from her eminently understanding English husband Michael Aris (David Thewlis) and their two sons, who campaign for her release from their family home in Oxford. Thewlis, who also plays Michael’s twin brother Anthony, is the perfect picture of slightly rumpled British reserve. Keeping the requisite stiff upper lip because he realizes Suu Kyi is doing the right thing, he internalizes his pain in order to carry on in his awkward role.
The Burmese government refuses to grant Michael a visa to see his wife when he is diagnosed with terminal cancer, but offers to let Suu Kyi leave the country to see him. She faces the wrenching dilemma of knowing that if she visits her dying husband, she may never be allowed back into Burma to continue her campaign for democracy there. Yeoh underplays Suu Kyi in a way that sometimes makes her seem cold instead of merely calm, but that’s probably more historically appropriate than turning her into a wild-eyed cinematic spitfire.
The Lady is the second true-story movie this year about resolute women whose adherence to their principles takes a toll on their faraway families. Like Oranges and Sunshine, in which British social worker Margaret Humphreys spent years investigating forced deportations and child abuse in Australia, The Lady offers an intriguing look at the choice between selflessness and selfishness — between what’s good for the many versus what’s good for the few.
Suu Kyi’s steadfast commitment to non-violence, and her refusal to end what became an “occupy”-style protest at her own home, serves as a timely example to anti-government activists today.
[Rating: 3 stars]
The Lady opens in theaters on Friday December 2, 2011