The cinema of Eurotrash director, writer and mega-producer Luc Besson contains blue, tentacled space divas (The Fifth Element), ass-kicking manimals (Unleashed) supermodel bank robbers (the Taxi cycle) and the love between a young boy and a pint-sized Madonna (Arthur and the Invisibles). He’s helped popularize parkour (District B-13), Natalie Portman (Leon: The Professional) and, starting with Taken, the curious concept of Liam Neeson as the new Charles Bronson. With The Lady, Besson can now add the struggle for Burmese independence to the pile.
One of these things is not like the others.
With The Lady, he conceals his true self, evidently aspiring to emulate the shameless dramas of Edward Zwick and recent Bruce Beresford. It’s a conservative, bland affair whose closest thing to an ill-advised concept is to briefly create multiple David Thewlises (Thewli?). That The Lady opens here the same day as the Besson-conceived space prison saga Lockout couldn’t be funnier. Surely Lockout is the finer film.
Taking a rare drama-only role, Michelle Yeoh lends her regal presence to Nobel winner Aung San Suu Kyi. The daughter of a martyred general who led Burma to independence, she returns home after a stint in England—which netted her an encouraging professor husband (Thewlis)—and finds herself running for office in a country overrun by a brutal military complex. Despite, or rather because of, her popularity, she winds up spending 15 years under house arrest. Reality, grim or not, and noble intentions do not suit Besson, who merely milks important issues for sap and corny filmmaking—it’s the kind of serious film made by and for people who aren’t serious.
It’s lone bright spot is Thewlis. When the British actor broke through as the nihilistic, philosophical bum in Mike Leigh’s Naked, it seemed he would become one of the great screen actors. Instead he’s wound up with a career of bum roles far beneath his multitude of talents. He often rises well above them, as he does here: though ostensibly just The Husband to a great leader, he’s nonetheless fiendishly alive and unfailingly charming, even when his character begins a quick cancer decay. The only people who need see this film are casting agents and good directors, out to save a great actor from being trapped in movies like The Lady.