The film begins bloodily with the assassination of Suu Kyi’s father in Rangoon in 1947. Despite this early violence, its neatly dichotomized moral universe makes the film eminently suitable for children. The non-military population of Burma is good and craves democracy; but the military junta is evil. These rotters hate democracy – although there are signs that even some of the bad guys are susceptible to the saintly Suu’s democratic spell (admittedly, I did find the scene where the ASSK introduces one of the soldiers keeping her under house arrest to liberatory political slogans quite moving). There is also an absurdly superstitious Really Nasty General whose fortuneteller ill-fatedly predicts that a spirit is coming to heal the land – a plot device I haven’t seen handled with such subtlety since Kung Fu Panda 2. Ultimately, the film delivers the inspiring message that with the support of enough domestic servants, monks and history professors (and, one imagines, CIA agents) on your side, Freedom Will Come.
The film really does dodge all of the big questions. Determined to visit a remote mountain area of Burma to spread her people power message, Suu Kyi remarks to her party colleagues: ‘democracy only works when everybody is included’. But Besson shows no interest in explaining how or why Suu Kyi’s Western-backed government would achieve such inclusion better than the Chinese-backed junta. In the end, we are simply asked to believe that all will be well with the Burmese state so long as a Really Nice Woman is at the helm (for variations on this feminist - and, I'd argue, sexist - myth see the BBC’s The Amazing Mrs Pritchard or the Danish political drama Borgen, which is currently being broadcast on BBC4).
The film's dialogue is stilted and often comically bathetic. At one point the professor says to his wife, à propos of her house arrest: 'let's pray that this limbo is short-lived'. Later, at the start of one of the couple's cherished telephone calls, he remarks 'what a tonic to hear your voice', while his maid, on hearing of the Burmese authorities' refusal to allow the professor to see his wife, opines that: 'it beggars belief, it really does'. Despite these banalities, The Lady is technically proficient. Michelle Yeo is outstanding as ASSK and David Thewlis plays the mild-mannered professor convincingly. The cinematography is workmanlike and respectful (parallel overhead shots, for example, link the killing of Aung San and Suu Kyi's breakdown, four decades later, on hearing of the death of her husband, while slow motion sequences add grandeur to Suu's political speeches). But the narrative's elision of historical and political complexities is painfully apparent. And let's face it - if it's evil Burmese junta action you're after, you'd be much better off watching the last Rambo film, which was a lot more fun and boasts a body count that would have made George Gerbner weep.
It looks like I was right to predict that Besson would deliver a political hagiography. My success here encourages me to dust off my crystal ball and speculate on some forthcoming films. Next up for me is the Thatcher biopic The Iron Lady. My hunch is that, like Besson's film, it will tell the story of a feisty woman who was determined never to give up on her dreams and do the right thing for her country.