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THE LADY Review: Flat Direction Undoes Michelle Yeoh's Fine Performance

Luc Besson's sterile, unfussy direction and a pat script severely compromise what is nevertheless a career-best performance from Michelle Yeoh.

rating: 2.5

Many film buffs would argue that Luc Besson hasn't directed a truly diverting film since his dippy 1997 sci-fi curio The Fifth Element, instead fashioning himself recently as a jack-of-all-trades, directing animation (Arthur and the Invisibles) and fanciful adventure (The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec), as well as producing countless mindlessly entertaining action films, such as The Transporter, District B13 and Taken. Besson, apparently ever keen to stretch himself, tackles a straight-faced drama this time with The Lady, and the extravagant director has never seemed more out of his depth. Besson's film attempts to summarise the attempts of one woman, Aung San Suu Kyi (Michelle Yeoh) to bring democracy to Burma, which is captivated by an oppressive and violent military regime. From her early beginnings as the lowly daughter of the revolutionary Aung San, Kyi leaves to England where she finds a loving husband, Michael (David Thewlis), and has two sons with him. It is only when her mother becomes gravely ill that she returns to Burma, where the locals remember her father's legacy and beg her to lead them in their fight against the tyrannical leaders. Typically, the military installation there doesn't take too kindly to this, forcing her into house arrest, while her relationship with her family, still living back in England, suffers to irredeemable ends. The story of Aung San Suu Kyi's determined fight against Burma's oppressors is a fascinating one which dominated our TV screens last year when she was finally released from her captivity, but this piecemeal treatment, directed by someone who feels absolutely unsuitable for it in every way, fails to capture the agonising heartbreak of Kyi's final dilemma, nor the wider impact of the regime's leadership on the country's citizens. Rebecca Frayn's troublesome screenplay is surely most to blame, written as though following the political biopic textbook, yet also paced inconsistently, indulging the more melodramatic moments for countless scenes while glossing over those which would suggest a further political context. Jarringly, several scenes produce a head-scratching response thanks to what is either sloppy editing, writing or both; one minute, Kyi is unsure whether to run for office, and just a moment later, she does it anyway; later on, it's said that she has been disqualified as a political rival, and then minutes later she wins anyway; and mid-way, she is free to leave her home again, only for it to be inexplicably reinforced by film's end. None of these things are adequately explained, and while one might commend the approach were it trying not to spoonfeed the viewer, it is clear that this is not the case; these important decisions, with their complex emotions, are skipped over in favour of dramatic touchstones and one-liner truisms which, at least in the first case, feel pulled out of any number of superior political biopics. Michelle Yeoh, however, manages to transcend the disappointing material with a fair degree of success; much like Meryl Streep's work in the dispiriting misfire The Iron Lady, her frighteningly accurate mimicry counts for a lot, and those brief instances she is given to bathe in her character's angst, particularly at the climax, are perfectly played. Integral to realising Kyi's devastating choice is the man in her life, played with gusto by David Thewlis, who also plays Michael's twin brother Anthony for a few scenes, and with some decent hair and make up might render him unrecognisable for a few moments. What really works more than anything else in this film is their chemistry; the two don't share much screen time together, but the sparing scenes in which they do are well-drawn, more thanks to the committed work from the actors rather than the direction or the script. We do in those instances feel their pain, but it just does not reveal itself often enough from a visceral standpoint. Besson was always going to be a dangerous choice for a project like this, and while certainly earnest enough in its intentions and virtually unrecognisable as having come from the same man who directed Leon, The Lady suffers under Besson's inexperienced dramatic hand, and more problematically, a script which denies emotional agency to its fascinating protagonist far too often, such that the good work here can only be so good, and derails what might have been a solid Academy Award bid for Michelle Yeoh. Luc Besson's sterile, unfussy direction and a pat script severely compromise what is nevertheless a career-best performance from Michelle Yeoh. The Lady is playing now in UK Cinemas.
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Frequently sleep-deprived film addict and video game obsessive who spends more time than is healthy in darkened London screening rooms. Follow his twitter on @ShaunMunroFilm or e-mail him at shaneo632 [at] gmail.com.