It was probably inevitable that Aung San Suu Kyi, the legendary Burmese democracy activist and 1991 Nobel Peace Prize laureate, would eventually receive the cinematic treatment. It wasn’t inevitable that The Lady, the resulting film, would be sluggish, melodramatic and generally forgettable. But neither is this wholly surprising.
This is no fault of Suu Kyi herself. As anyone familiar with her story already knows, she’s a woman of extraordinary dedication and courage. But the very things that make her admirable — such as facing down a line of armed soldiers pointing their guns at her, or remaining in Burma as her husband lay dying in Britain, knowing she could never return if she left — also lend themselves easily to Hollywood-style melodrama. That Suu Kyi spent 15 years under house arrest, in contrast, isn’t very well-suited to this kind of film, and it’s a tension The Lady struggles with.
The basic outline of Suu Kyi’s story is well known, beginning with the 1947 assassination of her father, a Burmese general, when she was just a child. She went on to study at Oxford and married a British academic, Michael Aris (David Thewlis), whom she lived abroad with for several years before returning to Burma in 1988 to care for her ailing mother.
Swept up in the opposition movement against the country’s military rulers, Suu Kyi ultimately led her National League for Democracy Party to a landslide victory in the 1990 parliamentary elections. But she spent most of the next two decades confined to her lakeside villa in Rangoon, before the junta finally released her in 2010 (the film ends with her greeting cheering crowds during the country’s 2007 Buddhist-monk led “saffron revolution”).
Those who aren’t familiar with Suu Kyi’s story will find it easy enough to catch up via the film’s clunky exposition through TV news reports, but anyone who’s interested in knowing more than the simple facts of her life will be frustrated. Since the film only really begins with her 1988 return to Burma, there’s no insight on her formative years, which are hardly referenced; there’s no real sense of her philosophy, save for platitudes such as “democracy only works if you involve everybody.” And there’s no understanding of her relationship with her husband, which endured through long periods of separation because he supposedly shared a commitment to Burma as deep as hers.
At the expense of insight, the film tries to offer suspense, but it’s no more successful here, attempting to inject drama where none exists. At one point, ominous music swells as Suu Kyi scrambles frantically to listen to her son, who’s accepting her Nobel Prize on her behalf, after the power goes out. There’s no doubt she’ll ultimately manage to tune in, of course, but given all the other hardships she endures throughout, would it really matter if she couldn’t?
Although she’s on screen most of the time, Suu Kyi never really emerges as a fully fledged character. The film’s pacing bears much of the blame, somehow managing to make the experience feel like a slog even though many of the individual scenes are far too brief to have any impact. There’s also a preference for telling over showing, such as Suu Kyi protesting to her husband that, far from being a saint, she actually has a “terrible temper,” something we see absolutely zero evidence of.
Michael is mostly dogged but weary, an understandable reaction under the circumstances, but not terribly interesting to watch. Suu Kyi’s friends in Burma (and her foes) are virtually interchangeable, although the generals and their underlings are suitably — if cartoonishly — evil in their manner and appearance.
Lacklustre though The Lady is, its failure is of little consequence. Suu Kyi’s accomplishments, for which she’s received a slew of honours in addition to the Nobel, speak for themselves — she hardly needs a film to bolster her standing. But if the makers of The Lady hoped some of her aura would rub off on them for bringing her story to the screen, they’ll be sorely disappointed.