It’s been a good year for movies about female politicians. The first to receive a fabulous film treatment was “The Iron Lady,” aka Margaret Thatcher. Now the lens has turned to the woman who led Burma’s democratic revolution in the 1990s, Aung San Suu Kyi (dubbed the “Steel Orchid,” according to a line in the new film The Lady, out April 11). Of course, there are differences between these two female political forces. Thatcher was—how shall I put this?—not exactly loved by her constituency, while Aung San Suu Kyi remains one of the most-beloved leaders in Burmese history. These women were very nearly contemporaries; the Burmese revolution in 1988 came just two years before the end of Thatcher’s time as Britain’s Prime Minister. And despite their vastly different leadership styles and personalities, they do have one thing in common: each woman changed the history of her country.
The Lady vividly portrays the atrocities committed in Burma from the time Suu Kyi’s father Aung San (a leader in gaining democracy and independence for the nation) was assassinated in 1947, until nearly the present day. I was impressed by the smart decisions the filmmakers made in terms of which elements of the story to tell. Most biopics get so wrapped up in the personal life of the subject (because romance sells, apparently) that they fail to focus on the achievements for which these people are actually famous. “The Lady” dodges that bullet admirably, skipping any flashbacks to Suu Kyi and husband Michael Amis’ meeting and budding romance, and focusing only on the events that surrounded her return to Burma and subsequent rise to power in the late 1980s.
I was left with equal admiration for both Suu Kyi and Michael. People make jokes all the time about what would happen if we had a female president—what would we call the man instead of “First Lady”? What would his role be, if his wife was the one with the political power? Looking at Michael Amis, both in nonfiction accounts and fictionalized historical dramas such as this one, shows exactly what the husband of a female political leader should be. In the film, he is tirelessly supportive of her decisions, gives her the freedom to act in her country’s best interest even if it keeps them apart, and acts on her behalf when she cannot do what is necessary for the cause. (This was especially true in the scenes where Suu Kyi was placed under house arrest, a condition she endured for eleven years; during that time they saw each other only five times, but when she was prevented from communicating with the outside world, he campaigned for her and made her cause known to the world at large.)
Aung San Suu Kyi, however, is the one who leaves me—and probably most people—most awed. Michelle Yeoh plays her with astounding grace and bravery, giving me the impression of a woman as delicate and gentle as she is powerful. Whether she is speaking in public for the first time (in front of a million people, no less), going on hunger strike, or walking toward a row of soldiers aiming guns straight at her, Suu Kyi is an example of one person’s extreme courage and dedication to making a difference. What I knew of her prior to the film made her admirable, but Yeoh’s performance made that admiration even more personal.
The film does have some moments of shocking violence, but rather than being gratuitous, I think these scenes are necessary. The historical note at the end of the film points out that to this day, Burma still has one of the worst human rights records and highest rates of atrocity in the entire world. In order to help bring change to such an embattled part of the world, we have to see what Suu Kyi saw, the horrors that made her want to take charge and bring peace. At the end of the film, I felt inspired to do something and make progress in my own life. Stirring without being sappy: those are the qualities that make a biopic really good.
The Lady, starring Michelle Yeoh and David Thewlis, hits theatres April 11. Watch the trailer below.
Image credit: Vincent Perez/2010 EuropaCorp/Left Bank Pictures/France2Cinema via oneasianworld.com (Photo still from "The Lady")