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THE LADY is an epic love story about how an extraordinary couple and family sacrifice their happiness at great human cost for a higher cause. This is the story of Aung San Suu Kyi and her husband, Michael Aris. Despite distance, long separations, and a dangerously hostile regime, their love endures until the very end. A story of devotion and human understanding set against a background of political turmoil which continues today. THE LADY also is the story of the peaceful quest of the woman who is at the core of Burma's democracy movement. Written by
Politically, the late eighties and nineties were the most hopeful period in recent history. Throughout the world, especially in Eastern Europe and Latin America but also in Africa and the Far East, dictatorial regimes were giving way to democracy. Activists such as Lech Walesa, Vaclav Havel and Nelson Mandela were exchanging their prison cells for their countries' Presidential Palaces, and it seemed that Burma (I will not call it "Myanmar"), which had been governed by a repressive military junta since 1962, would be the next democratic success story. Opposition to the regime was led by Aung San Suu Kyi, the beautiful and charismatic daughter of a national hero who enjoyed the devoted support of most of her compatriots. It seemed inevitable that "people power" would sweep away the junta, just as it had swept away the Marcos regime in the Philippines and the Communist dictatorships of Eastern Europe.
And yet this did not happen; the Burmese regime succeeded in maintaining its iron grip on power. Perhaps the reason was that, unlike many other tyrannies, it lacked any recognisable ideology beyond an Orwellian vision of "a boot stamping on a human face, forever". Communism collapsed when it became clear that it could not perform its ostensible ideological function, the protection of the economic interests of the working man. This in turn provoked the collapse of right-wing dictatorships like Pinochet's in Chile or Suharto's in Indonesia, which had justified their existence by claiming to defend their countries against Communism. Apartheid collapsed when it became clear that the economic interests of black and white South Africans were so closely intertwined as to make nonsense of the idea of "separate development". Than Shwe's junta, lacking any ideology which could be discredited in this way, could resist the forces of change for as long as it could maintain the loyalty of its troops and its own will to power.
"The Lady" depicts the life of Suu Kyi, known as "the lady" to her followers. It is not a complete biography, as it shows little of her early life, apart from the assassination of her father Aung San when she was three years old. The main action begins in 1988, when she was in her mid-forties and returned to Burma to visit her ailing mother, having previously been living in England with her husband Michael Aris, an Oxford professor. Her visit coincided with an uprising against military rule, which was followed by a brief period of liberalisation. She was persuaded to lead the country's nascent pro-democracy movement, and her party, the National League for Democracy, won a convincing majority in the 1990 parliamentary election. The military, however, refused to recognise the result and reimposed martial law. Suu Kyi was placed under house arrest and all political campaigning was forbidden. The junta seemed quite unmoved by international condemnation; even the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to Suu Kyi in 1993 could not persuade them to release her.
The film was directed by Luc Besson, who was perhaps not the ideal director, as he had previously best been known for making action movies such as "Nikita". He had made a previous biography of a national political heroine, "Joan of Arc", but even there the action scenes are the best thing about the film. It is perhaps therefore unsurprising that "The Lady" is rather slow and ponderous and shows signs of having been made by a director unused to this style of film-making. Visually, however, the film is often attractive, with effective contrasts between the green, tropical lushness of South-East Asia- these scenes were shot in Thailand rather than Burma itself- and the grey stone of Oxford, a city often seen in the snow.
To be fair to Besson, he appears to have been deeply committed to this film, and it is possible that without his commitment it might never have been made. He was fortunate in having a leading lady, Michelle Yeoh, who was just as committed as he was; indeed, it was she who persuaded him to take on the project. Yeoh here gets to show, as she did in "Memoirs of a Geisha", that she is more than just a Bond Girl, more than just a kung-fu action heroine. She has the advantage of bearing a striking resemblance to the woman she is portraying.
Yeoh described the film as "an incredible love story", and the element most emphasised in the film is the relationship between Suu Kyi and her husband, from whom she was separated for many years. She would have been free at any time to leave Burma and rejoin him and their two sons in England, but always refused to do so, knowing that if she ever left the country she would never be permitted to return. David Thewlis as Aris is perhaps even better than Yeoh, playing him as an unworldly academic and devoted family man who nevertheless selflessly insists that his wife remain in Burma, knowing that if she leaves the country this will be a great blow to the pro-democracy movement. His premature death from cancer, possibly brought on or exacerbated by the stress of his situation, is the film's most tragic moment.
Suu Kyi's house arrest has now been lifted and Burma is now ruled by a civilian government, although it remains to be seen whether it will evolve into a genuine democracy; the elections in 2010 were widely denounced as neither free nor fair, and the new government as a mere front for a continuing military dictatorship. The expulsion of Michelle Yeoh from the country last year would suggest that the authorities are still very touchy about criticism. The film, however, performs the valuable service of reminding the world of the problems of a country which was for too long one of the last bastions of tyranny. I certainly preferred it to "The Iron Lady", the other recent biopic of a major female political figure. 7/10
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