Saturday Night At The Movies -- The actress and the activist: "The Lady" and "Applause"

Saturday Night at the Movies

The actress and the activist

by Dennis Hartley

Notes from the underground: The Lady

On a recent trip to Myanmar, Secretary of State Clinton publicly expressed her admiration for Burmese political activist Aung San Suu Kyi, acknowledging her long personal struggle (including 15 years of house arrest) as head of an opposition party that has been (peacefully) attempting to bring democracy to a country that has been under oppressive military rule for 50 years. Some encouraging news emerged earlier this month, with Suu Kyi and other members of her party winning 43 out of 45 seats in the lower house of the parliament. Indeed, Suu Kyi’s story is an extraordinary one (and which one hopes is far from over). That’s why it’s a shame that Luc Besson’s biopic, The Lady, while timely in its release, can only be described as “ordinary” in its execution. It’s an oddly uninvolving affair that starts off like Gandhi …but ends up more like Camille.

The film begins promisingly enough, with a beautifully constructed and emotionally affecting preface depicting the 3-year old Suu Kyi kissing her father goodbye for what turns out to be the last time. The year is 1947, the place is Burma (as it was then known) and General Aung San (who today is considered the nation’s “Father” for his key role in helping it gain independence from British colonial rule) is off to a political meeting, where he is assassinated. The next time we see Suu Kyi (Michelle Yeoh), she is an adult, living in England with her husband, Oxford academic Dr. Michael Aris (David Thewlis). They have two teenage sons (Jonathan Raggett and Jonathan Woodhouse). When Suu Kyi learns that her mother is gravely ill, she returns to Burma to be at her side. It is during this visit (in 1988) that she realizes how socio-politically unstable her country has become, and how fear and dread rule the lives of her people. When she is asked by pro-democracy activists to remain in-country to lead their burgeoning movement, she accepts.

After this setup, I assumed that I was in for a rousing story of personal sacrifice and determination, set against a backdrop of intense political turmoil and sweeping historical breadth (something along the lines of The Year of Living Dangerously or The Killing Fields). I assumed. But what follows instead is fairly by-the-numbers; holding all the dramatic import of a Powerpoint presentation. Rebecca Frayn’s screenplay takes a Cliff’s Notes approach to Suu Kyi’s life; for a 2 ½ hour film, there are an inordinate amount of unanswered questions and expository holes. For example, Suu Kyi’s dying mother is presented as little more than…her dying mother. It was only following some research after seeing the film that I was surprised to learn that Suu Kyi’s mother had a political career of her own (she was appointed Burma’s ambassador to India in 1960). Perhaps most significantly, the film is marketed as being, at its core, a great love story…but there is very little passion on display in the scenes between Thewlis and Yeoh; there is nothing offered onscreen that gives us any clue as to what sparked the attraction between the two. While I’ll grant that it is possible Thewlis made an acting choice to play the “stiff upper lip” Englishman archetype, his behavior toward Yeoh plays out as formal and detached.

Instead, we’re given a seemingly endless series of farewells and reunions, with Thewlis and sons leaving and arriving in taxis over the years, with only Eric Serra’s overbearing orchestral swells on hand to cue us that we’re supposed to be tearing up. And the part of the family’s story that should truly move us, which was Dr. Aris’ death from prostate cancer after spending the final 4 years of his life unsuccessfully petitioning the Burmese government for permission to visit Suu Kyi (under house arrest), is instead rendered like sudsy, almost laughable (if it weren’t so inherently sad) Disease of the Week melodrama.

As I am a fan of his work, I was expecting much more from Besson, who has built his reputation on slickly produced, well-paced and visually inventive films that frequently feature strong female protagonists (La Femme Nikita , The Fifth Element, The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc). What he has delivered here (the opening 10 minutes aside) is a film that, while visually stunning, remains emotionally empty. For a more compelling portrait of modern-day Burma, I would recommend the documentary They Call it Myanmar: Lifting the Curtain, which I reviewed here last week. In that film, you see and hear the real Suu Kyi, and although her appearance is brief, it reveals a whole lot more about the determination, grace and fortitude of this remarkable woman.

What a dump: Applause

Speaking of remarkable women, I think I have a new favorite actress. Her name is Paprika Steen, and she delivers a searing performance in a Danish import called Applause, directed and co-written (with Anders Frithiof August) by Martin Zandvliet. Technically, Steen is giving two searing performances in this film…one as an embittered, middle-aged alcoholic stage actress named Thea Barfoed, and other one as the embittered, middle-aged alcoholic “Martha”, as in “George and Martha”, the venomous, bickering couple who fuel Edward Albee’s classic play, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.

And, as you might guess, the clever theatrical allusions abound throughout the film, with interwoven vignettes of Thea’s nightly performances as “Martha” serving as a Greek Chorus for her concurrent real-life travails. While she continues to wow adoring fans with her expert stagecraft, the acid-tongued Thea makes a less-than-glowing impression on the people she encounters in her off-stage life (mostly due to the fact that she’s usually half in the bag by lunchtime). She has particular difficulty dealing with the fact that her ex-husband Christian (Michael Falch) has remarried, to a younger woman named Maiken (Sara-Marie Maltha). Adding insult to injury (at least from Thea’s perspective), Maiken is a psychologist, which only further fuels Thea’s ever-present paranoia and insecurities.

However, there does seem to be a tiny glimmer of light on the horizon, as Thea is making a concerted effort to step away from the bottle for good (which is sort of working out, in fits and starts). Finding herself in an unusually lucid state of mind one day, she decides to begin lobbying in earnest for acquiring more quality time with her two young sons, who live with their father and stepmother (Thea ceded custody when she divorced Christian). Although Thea is making nice with Maiken, and assuring her ex that she has “changed” since…(a mental breakdown, or possibly a prolonged stay at a rehab clinic? I wasn’t quite clear on that), Christian is remains warily skeptical. After all…she is an actress.

And so this simple, yet emotionally complex slice of life unfolds. As anyone who has seen more than one character study about an alcoholic will tell you, it’s right about the time things start looking up for the protagonist that you find yourself involuntarily cringing and waiting for the other shoe to drop (“How is she going to fuck this up? Pass the popcorn.”). While I’ve seen this story before, it’s been some time since I’ve seen it played with the fierce commitment Steen brings to the table. Thea’s shame spiral binges evoke Patty Duke’s Neely O’Hara in Valley of the Dolls at times, but I felt Steen’s overall performance (and the film’s writing and directing style) most strongly recalled John Cassavetes’ Opening Night. In that 1977 film, Gena Rowlands plays, well, an insecure, middle-aged alcoholic stage actress, who is starring in a play that mirrors her real life angst. And just like the great Rowlands, Steen is a force of nature; a real joy to watch. She is fearless, compassionate and 100% convincing. After all…she is an actress.

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