I think the critics have it wrong on this one. What I'd heard was that this movie was too respectful of its subject and of the historical facts of her life.
This is bullshit and the film is outstanding.
As we all know, it's a biopic of Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi. Her father was Aung San, a revolutionary who helped end British colonial rule in Burma but then was assassinated in 1947. Suu Kyi was only two at the time. She grew up in various countries as a result of her mother's prominence in the Burmese government, was educated in New Delhi and Oxford and eventually married an Oxford lecturer in Asian history, Dr Michael Aris. They had two children and an ordinary life... until 1988, when Suu Kyi returned to Burma and found herself getting asked to lead the country's pro-democracy movement.
This was not a safe decision to make. The Burmese junta has one of the world's worst human-rights records. Suu Kyi's friends would disappear, to rot in prison for years or be sent to walk across minefields. Suu Kyi herself spent many years under house arrest and wasn't even able to see her husband before his death.
This film is her story. It's not particularly exciting. Suu Kyi's resistance is passive, simply enduring everything the Burmese government does to her. She's been doing this for well over twenty years. That's this film, more or less. It has a passive non-protagonist and a story with no real resolution.
However I don't think that matters. To me this feels like the narrative of modern Burmese history as much as it does a story about Suu Kyi herself. She doesn't feel like a movie character, to be honest. She just feels like a good person. This movie is telling the world about a woman who's been brave in the face of evil, paying every attention being paid to authenticity and a performance from Michelle Yeoh in the title role that was capable of reducing the Burmese extras to tears. It also shows the deep love in her marriage to Dr Aris, which is moving and in itself rather wonderful to watch.
This film isn't important for its drama, which isn't a particularly important part of it, but for its humanity. I loved it.
Above all it lives or dies by its performances, which are magnificent. Yeoh just about killed herself doing this role. She learned Burmese for it. She was even allowed to meet the real Suu Kyi, after which Besson said that she "had perfected Suu Kyi's appearance and the nuances of her personality to such an extent that the lines between the real human being and the portrayed character blurred when they crossed in real life." (The Burmese authorities later changed their minds and deported Yeoh, mind you.) It's the role of a lifetime for her and she more than does it justice, even looking spookily like the woman she's playing.
Meanwhile David Thewlis plays her husband, with an academic's hair and nearly as much determination to do the right thing as his wife. He could easily have been the token weepy bit in the film, but he's not. On the contrary we see him working bloody hard on her behalf and every good thing she says about him is true.
We go to Oxford, with even the exterior shooting being done outside the real Suu Kyi's family house there. We go to Thailand, since they weren't allowed to film in Burma, but in fact Luc Besson went to Burma himself anyway, scouted locations and did some filming in disguise. We see locations so beautiful that it's like seeing a tourist brochure and all kinds of local people, including deformed giraffe-like women who've been stretching their necks with metal bands. We see genuine BBC news footage from the years under discussion. We talk to someone who looks so much like Archbishop Desmond Tutu that I'm half-convinced it was really him... and I can't see anyone listed in the film's credits as playing that role.
The attention to detail goes so far that their replica of Suu Kyi's house is even at the correct compass orientation, to show the sunrise from the right direction. (They could have gone further in showing Burmese human rights violations, but I don't think that was necessary. You could take your mother to see this and she'd probably like it as much as I did.) I'll admit that films like Flags of our Fathers
to me felt a bit stifled by their attention to historical detail, but this is different. Suu Kyi's story is more important than that of either of those films and the situation in Burma right now is still wide open. Occasionally the film gave me chills, e.g. Yeoh closing her eyes. Once or twice it brought me close to tears. This movie matters and I think it's important that people support it. You see, it doesn't seem impossible to me that its existence might have influenced the Burmese junta's recent moves towards a pro-Western stance, releasing political prisoners and lifting Suu Kyi's house arrest.
I'm just speculating, but who knows? Anyway, this is a beautifully acted and warm story of a marriage, a troubled country and a brave woman. Please watch it.