Ang San Suu Kyi was a young girl, asleep on a patio chair when the red-bandana-ed military arrived and shot her father dead. At least that’s how director Luc Besson and screenwriter Rebecca Frayn tell it.
It’s a beginning that lets us know her political birthright. But the real start of The Lady is when “Suu” (played with class and confidence by Michelle Yeoh), living in England, marries Michael (David Thewlis as the world’s most supportive husband). Actually, we never see their wedding — they are married — that is the natural state of their lives. And that marriage is the foundation for The Lady. History will remember Ang San Suu Kyi for her political leadership and notorious decades-long house arrest, but The Lady presents her as wife and mother.
It’s hard to imagine a time when Ang San Suu Kyi wasn’t the face of a pro-democracy movement in Burma, but at the start of the movie, she’s just another emigrant living in Oxford with her British spouse — it’s nothing more than coincidence that her father was the leader of the last movement put down by the current Burmese regime. Their only tie to Burma is that they travel there to show their kids where mommy comes from, and to visit old friends and family. They regret the repression happening in Burma, but they are not setting out to change the political system.
But as they say, events conspire. Each time Ang San Suu Kyi speaks her mind, it seems to catch the notice of the military authorities, presented here as paranoid about her potential power. That paranoia causes them to overreact, drawing global attention to their injustice, and creating a self-fulfilling prophecy about their own demise as rulers of Burma. One has only to read the headlines to see where Ang San Suu Kyi is now.
Given that it was directed by Luc Besson ( The Fifth Element, The Professional), The Lady is a surprisingly straightforward biopic. It’s a love story, about a couple enduring challenges and attacks, persevering under pressure, and spending their lives toward a shared goal. It’s very good; it’s just unexpectedly normal.
Besson avoids making the movie episodic. In worse biopics, filmmakers try to fit too much history into two hours — a two-minute scene here is adjacent to a 40-second scene there, yielding an unsatisfying jumble. Besson and editor Julien Rey tell a better story than that. Instead of joining scenes with ellipses and ampersands, they keep a continuous emotional flow that makes for a satisfying film.
At 132 minutes, The Lady is probably a tad too long. But Yeoh’s inner strength and charisma and Besson’s focused storytelling make a biopic that’s a notch above the rest.