If “The Lady” is any indication, Luc Besson, the Paris-born filmmaker behind such testosterone-fueled thrillers as “Taken,” “Transporter 2" and “The Fifth Element,” is having a tough time getting in touch with his feminine side. Yes, there was his recent script for “Colombiana,” but at least as portrayed by Zoe Saldana, that was one tough chick.
“The Lady,” on the other hand, required both elegance and eloquence in telling the story of Burmese pro-democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi, whose efforts earned her a Nobel Prize. Instead, we have a fumbling and fawning — if sincere — tribute to the living legend and a director who has never seemed more out of his element.
Essentially, the film follows Suu Kyi’s long journey to help win truly free elections for the Burmese, the years she spent under house arrest as a result, her message of nonviolence in the face of a violently repressive regime, and the sacrifices her political passions required of her family. With a story that singular and that inspiring, it’s easy to see what attracted the director, the screenwriter Rebecca Frayn and the film’s stars, Michelle Yeoh (“Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”) as Suu Kyi and wonderful British character actor David Thewlis as her husband, Michael Aris. (He also fills in as Aris’ twin, Anthony, with a slightly altered comb-over expected to distinguish between the two that doesn’t work on any number of levels.)
The movie has a promising start. It is late 1940s Burma and a 3-year-old Suu Kyi sits outside the family’s lush estate, a flower plucked by her father in her hair. That idyll ends later in the day with the assassination of her father, a general who had been pressing for democracy.
The next time we see Suu Kyi, she’s grown up and living in England — a very lovely, if ordinary, life with her professor husband and their two boys. When her aging mother becomes gravely ill in 1988, she returns to Burma, where in short order her presence galvanizes the local pro-democracy crowd, and their devotion to her father’s cause in turn galvanizes her.
The filmmakers move quickly through Suu Kyi’s decision to get politically involved in the country and the swift reaction of a very unsympathetic Burmese government. She is almost immediately placed under house arrest, and her restrictions tightened over time as she refuses to leave the country, with the filmmakers trying to faithfully record every turn of the screw in this very dragged-out two-plus-hour film.
Making matters worse, at least for the director, is Suu Kyi herself. She is very unlike a typical Besson woman — the locked-and-loaded type he conjured up so convincingly for 1990’s smartly turned out assassin in “La Femme Nikita,” and has replicated since. Suu Kyi is certainly a far more powerful figure, but hers is a more interior force and harder for Besson to capture on the screen.
Yeoh succeeds in conveying a certain restrained elegance that Suu Kyi exudes and proves nearly seamless in moving between English and Burmese, a challenging language even for the multilingual Malaysian-born star. But when it comes to depth of the sort that Suu Kyi exhibits, the film falls short.
Most of the action, where Besson is clearly more comfortable, comes as events unfold outside the compound where Suu Kyi is held — cinematographer Thierry Arbogast, a frequent Besson collaborator, does particularly good work there too. Back in England, Michael and her sons wage their fight primarily through diplomatic channels. Between house arrest and diplomacy, which means a lot of bureaucratic phone calls and paper shuffling, it’s a struggle to sustain the drama.
The pain that comes with the couple’s separation provides the film’s most moving scenes, with the actors finally revealing some of the clearly devoted pair’s pent-up emotions. Others that should be powerful — especially the Nobel ceremony, with Suu Kyi’s son accepting the treasured peace prize in Norway as she listens from Burma on a transistor radio that has been smuggled in by the housekeeper — do not come with the punch they should.
What is missing is the confidence and bravado that Besson usually brings to his projects. Instead, the film moves between a dry documentary style and an overly sentimental one — neither suits the lady in question.