E1 Entertainment // 2011 // 128 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Bill Gibron // October 2nd, 2012
Wife. Mother. Prisoner. Hero.
Remember when Luc Besson announced he was "retiring" from making movies? It seemed like a smart move at the time, especially when you consider the projects he produced (The Transporter, Taken, District B13) were receiving more commercial and critical acclaim than the films (Angel-A, Arthur and the Invisibles) he actually directed. So in 2006, he said "goodbye," only to come back three years later with his adaptation of the comic book The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec. Now, with the whole R&R thing in the past, he leaps into a bravura biopic on the life and persecution of Nobel Prize-winning Burmese activist Aung San Suu Kyi. Featuring the marvelous Michelle Yeoh in the lead and David Thewlis as her long suffering British husband, the narrative centers on Suu Kyi and her rise to political power -- and position on the military government's enemies list. She ended up spending 15 years in exile. Too bad the movie about her life feels as long as her banishment.
It starts off with the assassination of Suu Kyi's (Yeoh, Sunshine) father, General Aung San. As someone instrumental in ending British colonialism in his country, his death would have a profound effect on the nation, and on our heroine. We fast forward a few decades and Suu Kyi is happily living in the UK with her spouse, Michael Aris (Thewlis, War Horse), and their children. Suddenly, she is called back to Burma to care for her dying mother. There, she learns of the growing student rebellion, the potent pro-democracy movement, and the knee jerk reaction of the ruling junta. Placed under house arrest for her involvement, the rest of this overlong movie focuses on her daily struggles, the isolation from her family, and a last act tragedy that truly tests her resolve, as well as her personal and political will.
With all the makings of an epic exploration of the human spirit -- especially one facing indescribable individual adversity -- you can see why Besson was drawn to this material. He tried something similar with his take on Joan of Arc (The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc), though many complained about his decision to apply more style than seriousness to said approach. Here, the director does the opposite, and once again fails his subject and her story. Suu Kyi may be a modern martyr, sacrificing all for the sake of her country, but Besson treats her like an afterthought. He's so busy building his backdrop, accenting Burmese and English life in the '90s, that he loses touch with the material's emotional core. We are supposed to be locked into Suu Kyi's continuing isolation and hardship. Instead, we keep wondering when the next narrative shoe will drop, and how devastating it will be. When it arrives, it's more of a thud than an planet-shattering shame.
And that's because of Besson. In fact, the biggest problems here are the director and his belief in the uninvolving script from first timer Rebecca Frayn. The storyline is relatively simple, but so are all the presumed complexities presented within the situations it describes. Like so many mismanaged biographies, there is an attention to ancillary detail which derails what we are really interested in -- the loneliness and alienation felt by the protagonist. For her part, Yeoh is excellent, broadcasting a fragility that really merits our attention. We keep wondering when Suu Kyi will break, at what point in this process she will simply give up and go back to her "normal" life.
Indeed, Yeoh is superb at illustrating that internal conflict, finding the right subtle gestures and facial expressions to mark her internal motives. As her husband, Thewlis is usually understated -- and equally good. He sells us on Aris' support of his wife, as well as his own familial misgivings. Since the character comes to a tragic end, it's not hard to see Besson's tendency toward tear jerking. But because his co-star is so convincing, we buy the manipulation. In the end, The Lady should have been better. The subject demands it. But with Besson behind the lens, what should sizzle just shrinks, and then slowly fades away.
Technically, E1's Blu-ray release offers some excellent specifications. The added content is horribly lax -- a mere trailer and mediocre making-of featurette -- but the sound and vision are very good indeed. The image, enhanced by cinematographer Thierry Arbogast, comes across with colorful detail, the 1080p/2.40:1 scope illustrating much of the grandeur the narrative is missing. There will be some who complain about the post-production manipulation of the palette (Who knew there was so much golden light in the East?), but the transfer itself is terrific. As for the audio, we are treated to a lossless DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio mix that expertly balances the movie's subtler moments with the bombast of some well-staged action sequences. With the dialogue presented directly and a nice level of ambience, it's an excellent complement to the visuals present.
It's just too bad The Lady isn't a more profound cinematic experience. The story is important, the acting is top notch, and the setting is brought to believable life. If this is an example of why Besson ended his self-imposed exile, perhaps he should go back to being unavailable. The Lady wasn't worth the return.
Guilty. An important subject handled in a subpar fashion.
Review content copyright © 2012 Bill Gibron; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: E1 Entertainment
* 2.40:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (Burmese, English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Burmese, English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 128 Minutes
Release Year: 2011
MPAA Rating: Rated R