The timing is perfect for a film biography of Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese activist and recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991. Late last month Suu Kyi won a seat in Parliament and, as head of the National League for Democracy (NLD), became the leader of the opposition to the military junta that changed the country’s name to Myanmar and, for most of its 50-year rule, made the independent nation a barbarous dictatorship.
Under house arrest for most of the past two decades, Suu Kyi proved a lambent symbol of resilience within tyranny. The junta encouraged her to join her ailing husband in England; but she stayed, knowing that if she left she would never be allowed to return. As the U2 song “Walk On,” dedicated to Suu Kyi, proclaims, “You could have flown away / A singing bird in an open cage / Who will only fly, only fly for freedom.” U2’s Bono wrote in TIME: “Her quiet voice of reason makes the world look noisy, mad; it is a low mantra of grace in an age of terror.” Suu Kyi was granted her freedom in 2010 and, at 66, takes her seat in the Lower House next Monday.
(SEE: Aung San Suu Kyi’s Path to Victory in James Natchwey’s photos)
The Lady also boasts a casting coup: Michelle Yeoh as Suu Kyi. Born in Malaysia to ethnic Chinese parents, Yeoh reigned for a quarter-century as the elegant doyenne of Chinese martial-arts movies (Jackie Chan’s Supercop 3 and Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon). While executing killer kicks and dangerous stunts, she was from her earliest films a figure of grace and gravity. These attributes, combined with her physical resemblance to Suu Kyi and her ability to create drama within stillness, make Yeoh an ideal choice for the role. David Thewlis, the gifted English star who has ferociously illuminated the work of Mike Leigh (Naked) and J.K. Rowling (Remus Lupin in the Harry Potter series), plays Suu Kyi’s Scottish husband, the Oxford academic Michael Aris.
(SEE: David Thewlis in the Gallery of Harry Potter‘s Great British Thespians)
The “casting” that sends eyebrows through hairlines is that of Luc Besson as the film’s producer-director. France’s maven of mayhem, Besson has directed La Femme Nikita, The Professional and The Fifth Element and produced the action franchises Taxi, Transporter and District B13. So a Besson study of Suu Kyi seems as likely a pairing as, say, a Michael Bay Gandhi — or, for that matter, a Mel Gibson Christ. Besson did direct another bio-pic of a female political insurgent, his 1999 Joan of Arc epic The Messenger, but that was a full-throttle war movie. Suu Kyi’s bravery is one of patience, a passionate passivity, and closer to the ordeals endured by heroines in the minimalist masterpieces of Robert Bresson — who in 1962 made his own Joan of Arc film.
(READ: TIME’s Review of the Besson-produced action film Taken)
It’s quite a stretch for Besson to imitate Bresson, but he tries. Though The Lady begins with a splatter of blood during the assassination of the heroine’s father Aung Sun, the architect of Burma’s independence from Britain, most of the film is a stately dual portrait of a long-distance love affair between Suu Kyi, imprisoned in her Rangoon home, and Michael fighting for her cause at Oxford University, where he raises their two sons while Mom is away trying to liberate her country from the lunatic junta.
At times Besson tries escaping from the straitjacket of stasis. He works artfully to stir kinetic tension in confined spaces, his camera prowling Suu Kyi’s compound, gliding in for a closeup of Yeoh’s stalwart beauty, while composer Eric Serra cocoons the story in his lovely or assonant but always sumptuous score. There’s little forward movement, however, in Rebecca Frayn’s well-researched, necessarily repetitive script. Over and over, Suu Kyi and Michael pledge their mutual ardor — Yeoh and Thewlis surely kiss and say “I love you” more times here than in the rest of their respective film careers combined — as they wait for a reprieve from the junta and, in a more personal poignancy, remain separated through Michael’s cancer siege.
(SEE: TIME’s Gallery – Freedom for Aung San Suu Kyi)
Cut by 12 minutes from the 2hr. 25 min. version shown last year at the Toronto International Film Festival, The Lady is still titled away from the churning melodrama of Suu Kyi’s country and toward the intimate dilemma of a loving couple forced apart by circumstance. One Myanmar official tells her, “You are free to choose, madam: your husband and your children or your country,” and Suu Kyi asks, “What kind of freedom is that?” Moviegoers can be grateful for this extended snapshot of domestic angst, while wishing that Besson had tracked back more often, to reveal the big picture of the continuing war for independence spearheaded by this long-suffering, indomitable lady.