The Lady Review
With so much of his recent directorial output devoted to fantasy, it comes as something of a surprise to find Luc Besson’s latest not only set in the real world but also incredibly topical. Gone are the alternative realities of the Arthur and the Invisibles franchise, the comic book recreation of The Extraordinary Adventures of Adele Blanc-Sec and the black and white Paris of Angel-A where models play fallen angels. In their place we have Burma’s very recent past and the life of oppositional politician and pro-democracy figurehead Aung San Suu Kyi. She’s been dominating the headlines of late following her parliamentary by-election win earlier this month, making this new Blu-ray release incredibly timely. In fact, she will take office on the day of this disc’s release, the 23rd of April 2012.
The driving force behind bringing Suu Kyi’s story to screen was Michelle Yeoh. The novelist and documentary filmmaker Rebecca Frayn (daughter of playwright Michael) began working on the screenplay some years ago having experienced the situation in Burma first-hand. Yeoh saw the film not only as a terrific leading role in which to show off her talents but also an extension of Suu Kyi’s own struggles. The Lady was to be part of the campaign for democracy in her country, a means of opening the eyes of westerners to the political realities. The quote at the film’s close is key: “Please use your liberty to promote ours.” History has moved on slightly since its premiere - Suu Kyi now has a parliamentary seat, has met with foreign dignitaries in recent weeks and is soon to leave Burma for the first time since 1988 safe in the knowledge that she’ll be able to return - but that doesn’t diminish the validity of such an approach. Indeed, whilst progress is being made, the situation can hardly be said to be resolved, whilst any awareness created as a result of this film can only be a good thing.
The best intentions don’t always translate into the best results, however. The Lady is a solid piece of filmmaking and as slickly handled as you would expect from Besson. But there are flaws too, of the kind that have a tendency to blight big screen biopics. Suu Kyi’s life is dramatised with a focus on the events from 1988 onwards. This was the year in which she had returned to her native Burma to take care of her dying mother, but also the point at which she assumed an active role in promoting democracy in the country. In the years previous she had been educated abroad, studying for degrees in New Delhi and later at Oxford, and subsequently lived in New York, Bhutan and the UK. Whilst at Oxford she met her future husband Michael Aris and, despite its name, The Lady is as much his story as it is hers. The key moments in their lives are viewed from both viewpoints: Suu Kyi in Burma as she experiences these events face-on or undergoes lengthy periods of house arrest; Aris in Oxford with their children and occasionally in Burma when the authorities would allow, effectively rendered an outsider.
The decision is a mostly shrewd one. Aris is the audience surrogate, an easy point of identification for those with little or no knowledge of Burma. The fact that he’s played by the immediately recognisable David Thewlis no doubt helps too. However, he’s also something of cipher. He is the ever-loving, ever-understanding, ever-dependable husband just as the two children are presented as equally perfect and, consequently, equally two-dimensional. The only black mark that Aris has against him is the fact that he’s a bit of a rubbish cook. Thewlis does his best, but it’s hardly surprising that his portrayal comes so close to caricature. Besson’s lack of discipline when it comes to his performers (witness Gary Oldman in Leon, as an example, or Chris Tucker in The Fifth Element) probably doesn’t help matters either.
The heavy presence of Aris also ensures that the love story stays central to The Lady. Indeed, the film is at its most affecting when consumed solely by Suu Kyi’s relationship with her husband. The fact that they are so often forced by circumstance to communicate solely via long distance (and short-lived) telephone calls only makes it all the more so. Here Thewlis is able to overcome the limitations of his characters and instead explore the more human aspects. Likewise Yeoh in a role that offers a welcome respite from her usual action heroine persona. (Although Suu Kyi’s cool head in the face of adversity perhaps contains a residue of Yeoh’s earlier days as a Bond girl and a co-star of Jackie Chan.) Her years in the industry arguably also contribute the amount of poise and presence she is able to bring to the role. The viewer is able to fully understand how and why this woman posed such a threat to her country’s military rule.
In line with the whiter-than-white portrayal of Suu Kyi and her family, the military generals are shown as pure evil. Besson likes his clean-cut heroes and villains and The Lady is no different. The Burmese military round up peaceful protestors and force them to walk hand-in-hand through minefields, all the while cackling away. Their leader is also prone to shooting his generals himself if they’re not up to scratch, much as a Bond villain would his henchmen. Such cartoon-ish qualities cannot help but diminish the overall effect. These may very well be genuine incidents but they’re rendered onscreen in a manner that wouldn’t seem out of place in an eighties Chuck Norris vehicle. Similarly the more positive moments are milked just as thoroughly - big speeches need big strings accompaniment it would seem. Perhaps Besson felt the need to the make his film as cut-and-dried as possible in order to ensure a large audience, but this also has the side-effect of removing some of its teeth. The aims behind The Lady are admirable, but it’s a subject which demands a film, not a movie.
A lovely looking disc from Entertainment. The Lady is presented in 1080p using an AVC encode with DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack. Naturally the original 2.35:1 aspect ratio is preserved, whilst the transfer has no problem handling the film’s different visual styles. The opening sequence, covering the assassination of Suu Kyi’s father in 1947, goes for the heavily oversaturated look. The rest of the film is split between the rich colours of Burma and the muted blue-ish tones of Oxford and parts of Europe. In each case it would appear that we are getting the image as intended. Clarity and level of detail are also superb as is also the case with the soundtrack. Note that the latter flits between English and Burmese with subtitles for the latter coming burnt into the picture.
The additional features are pretty so-so. ‘Making The Lady’ is a 27-minute behind the scenes consisting of interviews with the main players (Besson, Yeoh, Thewlis, et al) in the usual EPK fashion. It is rather slick, however, which at least makes it watchable, plus there’s plenty of archive material to up the interest. Some of Besson’s covert recce footage of Burma also gets featured. The other is 20-minute documentary short by French duo Gael Bordier and Tristan Mendes-France entitled ‘Happy World: Burma, The Dictatorship of the Absurd’. Shot in Burma itself, this piece takes a look at some of the characteristics of life in the country. They take a look at petrol rations, the sudden change in the law relating to which side of the road should be driven on, and other oddities. Each segment is interrupted by animated sequences which suggest an intended youth audience. This would also explain the slightly flippant and trivialising tone which perhaps lessens its impact.