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Review: Burmese Nobel Prize winner deserves better than numbing “The Lady”

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Michelle Yeoh stars as Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

Good people are boring — dramatically speaking, anyway. Rebel angel Lucifer upstaged God in “Paradise Lost.” Murderous gourmand Hannibal Lecter made Thomas Harris’ laptop hum more than nicey-nice FBI agent Clarice Starling ever did. And, in the biopic field, Ben Kingsley may have won an Oscar as Gandhi, but the movie bored the pants off anybody who watched it.

Which leads, alas, to “The Lady.” In a bold but all-thumbs departure from his usual genre subjects — professional killers (“La Femme Nikita,” “Leon”) and sci-fi shenanigans (“The Fifth Element”) — director Luc Besson gives us this heartfelt and numbingly sincere portrait of Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. In a nice bit of timing (which doesn’t make the movie any better), earlier this month she won a parliamentary seat in an election landslide after spending 15 of the last 22 years under house arrest by order of the country’s military junta.

Michelle Yeoh, best known for her blend of emotional serenity and physical prowess in “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” plays Suu Kyi. It’s an earnest, centered, respectable performance that never suggests any depth. That’s mainly the fault of a hagiographic script by Rebecca Frayn; she demonstrates little talent for the moral complexity found in works by her father, playwright and novelist Michael Frayn (“Copenhagen,” “Democracy”).

“The Lady” presents Suu Kyi’s biography largely as the dual portrait of a marriage. We meet her British husband, Michael Aris (David Thewlis), in 1998 in Oxford, where he’s a lecturer in Asian history — and where he’s diagnosed with terminal cancer. Suu Kyi, meantime, is in Burma fighting for democracy. The bulk of the movie happens in flashback, focusing on the 10 years between her return to her homeland and Michael’s diagnosis.

The film doesn’t bother much with explaining Burma’s (now Myanmar’s) history, or the importance of Suu Kyi’s martyred father in wresting the country from British colonialism. Instead, it presents her as a sort of plaster saint who would lead her country into enlightenment, if only the squat, repressive generals tormenting its citizens would let her. (Though evil characters easily steal focus from saintly ones, the uniformed villains in “The Lady” are almost accidentally funny in their 2-D brutality.)

 

 

Yeoh and Thewlis are fine actors, but they never convince you that they’re playing a real-life, warts-and-all couple. Only Thewlis comes close, in a solo moment, when Michael hears over the car radio about his wife’s latest near-death experience with the military; he has to pull to the curb and stumble out, trembling as the reality overwhelms him.

Oh, well, “The Lady” can’t tarnish Suu Kyi’s record, rescind her 1991 Nobel Peace Prize or diminish her very recent success in her homeland. But someone this good deserves a movie that’s better. And Besson, for all his best intentions, should maybe stick to hired assassins and interstellar action.

“The Lady.” Starring Michelle Yeoh, David Thewlis. Directed by Luc Besson. In English and Burmese, with subtitles. Rated R. 132 minutes. Opens April 13 at Landmark Midtown Art Cinema.

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