Our Academy film series turned serious and extremely relevant last night as we screened “The Lady”. Luc Beeson’s portrait of pro-democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi, the leading opponent to the savage military junta in Burma and her husband, scholar, Michael Aris, is a heartbreaking true love story set against political turmoil.
Michelle Yeoh (Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, Memories of A Geisha) is outstanding in her portrayal of a woman forced to choose between her country and her family.
Besson’s take on Suu’s life story begins in 1947 in Rangoon. Scarred forever by the assassination of her father, nationalist leader General Aung San, (who is considered the father of Modern Burma) Suu leaves her politically active mother and hometown to move to New Delhi, New York and London to study. She became a mother of two after marrying Michael Aris, a British writer and scholar of Tibetan culture.
Called back to Burma after her mother has a stroke, Suu witnesses atrocities that light the flame of her own activist nature and soon she has a pro-democracy following of thousands. Afraid of losing an upcoming election to her, the superstitious and brutal dictator Than Tun has her placed under house arrest, hoping that cutting her off from her followers and family will convince her to go back to England. Suu knows if she leaves Burma she will never be allowed back in. As a result, she stays committed to her cause at huge personal cost. Her family is only allowed sporadic visits, her mother dies, many of her supporters are imprisoned, and her husband fights a losing battle against cancer without her by his side.
Watching this story of unfailing determination and extraordinary courage, I couldn’t help wondering how a mother could make such a choice — spend years without seeing or talking to her husband and sons. The film and the research I have done since the screening suggests that she didn’t have a choice. Driven by the atrocities she witnessed, her love and respect for her father’s memory, and her genetic code implanted in Burma, she was compelled to ignore her own feelings in order to help millions of people.
After fifteen years under house arrest in her childhood home, Suu was released in 2010 having not seen her two sons for ten years. While in captivity, she received among other awards, the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991.
The stunning actor, Michel Thewlis, (Harry Potter, Seven Years In Tibet, The Big Lebowski) who plays her husband, also has a dual role as her husband’s brother. He reported they had to shoot this film in secret because any word of its being made could have been a danger to Suu’s life. When director Besson finally met her for the first time in person, filming had already finished in Thailand. He told students in Lille, France, that he filmed seventeen hours on a hand-held camera while posing as a tourist, and superimposed actors onto the Burmese backdrops. Besson said when he contacted Suu after completing the film’s editing, she said, ‘Thank you, it sheds light on my country. I’ll see it when I’m courageous enough to see the deaths of my father and husband on screen.”
Although Burma is changing, loosening restraints gradually and releasing political prisoners, there are still thousands suffering at the hands of this same regime today. Many of those in peril are Buddhist monks and children forced to ferret out landmines by walking across the Burmese version of the Killing Fields.
“The Lady” written by Rebecca Frayn opens in France on November 30.