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How on earth do you even go about condensing years and years of heartache, pain, sacrifice, turmoil, violence, politics, love, family, and the long, tiring emotional journey that goes along with it into a two-hour film? The quick answer is, you can't, unless you're an absolute genius when it comes to filmmaking; which Luc Besson is not. More famous for his trashy action scripts and silly, far-fetched, kinetic sequences of car chases and gunfights, it may come as a surprise that Besson directs the story of Aung San Suu Kyi (Michelle Yeoh), a Burmese politician fighting to introduce democracy into her country ruled by ruthless generals and soldiers who stop at nothing to grasp onto power. What may come as a smaller surprise is that under inexperienced hands, how underwhelming everything feels, despite an extraordinary true story guaranteed to bring out the tears.
It was Suu Kyi's father who got the ball rolling for the democratic movement in Burma, but before he could complete his political milestone, he was brutally assassinated, along with the rest of his important party members, by his opposing party throwing a coup. Suu Kyi was only a child when she was delivered the news, and then what happens? The film skips several decades. That's right, nothing on how she grew up, nothing of her years of education, or how she was brought up after the bloody massacre. A touch of focus on her childhood and adolescence would have been informative and enriched the film, even a brief overview would have sufficed. But here, we get nothing, absolutely nothing.
The next time we see Suu Kyi is with her English husband Dr. Michael Aris (David Thewlis), a professor at Oxford University, and their two children. She seems to lead a normal, quiet life, occasionally catching a glimpse of the news about Burma and its never-ending, escalating violence coming from the oppressive government. It's not until she gets a call from Burma informing her of her mother's deteriorating health she packs her bags and returns to her home country. Her arrival starts to stir up a storm the country has never seen before. There are the military government generals who feel threatened and worry that she will carry on her father's legacy, and there are the hidden supporters of the democratic regime, loyal to her father's ideas, and willing to put Suu Kyi forward as a potential party leader.
Despite her lack of experience and commitments to her family, after witnessing atrocities and seeing what has become of the country she left behind, she decides to stand up for the people, and form a party that will lead the country towards a better, more promising future. She gains a lot of public support instantly, something that is unacceptable under the current ruling. After trying various ways to undermine and cripple her wave of popularity, they eventually decide to place her under house arrest, refusing her any communication with the outside world, cut off from her followers, and most importantly, her family. And yet even with the pressure mounting, trying to force her to withdraw and admit defeat, she stands by her party and her cause, persevering until the people get a voice.
And so the struggle begins, and it's her non-violent, patient, calm and collected method during this unimaginable situation that garnered worldwide attention for Suu Kyi. And in the crucial central role of an international icon of peace, Yeoh is quietly superb as the heroine having to deal with challenges that only pile up and show no sign of going away. She appears strong and steadfast, although as the years start building up as well as the time spent away from her family, it does have noticeable effect on her emotional state. Yeoh is a very gifted actress, giving off the vibe of a competent, sympathetic leader, whilst almost not forgetting that she is a wife and mother. She has to make difficult choices, whether to put her country or personal life first, and it's in these emotional moments she truly shines as the warm and balanced leader.
Equally important is the role of Michael Arias, who keeps busy to have his wife's name known in the international political community and it is he who is largely responsible for Suu Kyi's Nobel Peace Prize win in 1991, a historic event covered with not so much grandeur, but with tender direction and heart with Suu Kyi listening to the ceremony via radio, crying tears of joy. Thewlis thoroughly excels in the busy, jam-packed role as the dedicated husband contacting everyone he can think of to put pressure on those responsible for her captivity. As the two struggle, it becomes clear to see the toll it takes on their relationship but also the increasing importance to see this through until the very end, and how giving up will never be an option. The stakes are raised every day, and Thewlis provides invaluable outside support.
For those who are familiar with Suu Kyi's story, you will know that things do get worse. She is released, rearrested, then released again, only to be held back in custody; this cycle goes on and more personal tragedy strikes as news of her husband's worsening health condition threatens to weaken her previous unfaltering determination. Whilst some aspects in portraying these difficult events are skillfully done thanks to the moving performances, the film finds itself stuck in a repetitive structure all the while not having enough actual content to justify its running time. It doesn't cover nearly enough ground and at times the pacing is too frustratingly slow for this well-intentioned biopic with lots of important things it wants to say. There are far too many time jumps, presenting unnecessary narrative breaks and what Besson forgets to pay close attention is to the film's fluid continuity. It's difficult to focus on a film that struggles to keep all the strands together, and failing to convincingly portray the long, still-ensuing fight results in a muted, mediocre finale where what has been achieved appears sadly inconsequential. There is a bigger, richer biopic that needs to be told about Suu Kyi, and Besson's heartfelt attempt here is admirable, having landed stars accomplished enough to go about this challenging material with warmth and subdued power, but given the amazing true story that underlies this superficial, empty portrayal, you begin to wonder whether this really is everything. And the truth is, there is so much more to the story than what is on display here.