Based on the story of Burmese pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, The Lady is not the only film based on the life of a famous political woman to be released this year. We also have Margaret Thatcher as The Iron Lady. However, apart from the fact that these women are both, as the titles helpfully and imaginatively suggest, ladies, and the fact that where goes a strong lady you can bet there’ll be a husband who can’t be portrayed as anything other than, well, a bit of a loveable oaf, the softer counterparts to their wives steely personas, these two stories seem to have little in common.
While Margaret Thatcher lived out her politics, and life, with her husband and family in Britain, Aung San Suu Kyi enjoyed no such privilege. However it’s not the physical captivity by Burmese authorities, which denies her from seeing her family for many years, which is striking in this film; it’s the emotional captivity from her past and those wishing her to fight the pro-democracy cause which is most prominent.
The thing is, Michelle Yeoh’s Suu Kyi doesn’t actually seem to like Burma very much. In fact the hostility of Yeoh’s portrayal is clear from the beginning when she slams down her passport at Burmese border control. This film feels much more about destiny and fate than it does about choice, and that comes through in Yeoh’s performance. Watch a clip of Kyi and the differences between Yeoh and Kyi are virtually indistinguishable. Physically and vocally Yeoh has her down to a tee. Given their similarities, the way Suu Kyi is acted by Yeoh pondered the question, was it Yeoh’s acting that was robotic or is that simply how Suu Kyi is, just accepting her fate and going through the motions? One second you were contemplating the horror of the fates of those plucked from the crowds attending Kyi’s pro-democracy speeches by the Burmese military, the next you were contemplating the detachment with which Kyi greeted her sons after not seeing them for years.
The film was clearly keen to focus on the human side of the story, focusing on the effect on Suu Kyi’s husband, played as you might expect an Oxford professor to be played (wearing a cardigan and a little bit eccentric) by David Thewlis, and her two sons, but more should have been made of the passion behind deciding to fight for Burma. A few fleeting references are made to her writing and beliefs but nothing more.
Despite its faults the film is still worth a watch. It’s beautifully shot in Thailand, and it at least attempts to get under the skin of a woman whose life and politics deserve to be celebrated.