France's maven of mayhem, Luc Besson has directed La Femme Nikita, The Professional and The Fifth Element and produced the action franchises Taxi, Transporter and District B13. So a Besson biopic of Aung San Suu Kyi the Burmese activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner who has agitated for her country's freedom while under house arrest seems as likely a pairing as Michael Bay's Gandhi or, for that matter, Mel Gibson's Christ. But though the film begins with a splatter of blood during the assassination of the heroine's father, the architect of Burma's independence from Britain, most of The Lady is a stately dual portrait of a long-distance love affair between Suu Kyi (Michelle Yeoh) in her Rangoon home and her devoted Scottish husband Michael Aris (David Thewlis) fighting for her cause at Oxford University, where the couple met and where he raises their two sons while Mom is away trying to liberate her country from the lunatic junta.
Yeoh, for a quarter-century an elegant doyenne of Chinese martial-arts movies (Jackie Chan's Supercop 3 and Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), was from her earliest films a figure of grace and gravity; these attributes, combined with her physical resemblance to Suu Kyi and her ability to create drama within stillness, make her an ideal choice for the role. Stasis doesn't suit Besson, who works artfully to stir kinetic tension in confined spaces, his camera prowling the Aung San compound, gliding in for a closeup of Yeoh's stalwart beauty, while composer Eric Serra cocoons the story in his lovely or assonant but always sumptuous score.
There's little forward movement, however, in Rebecca Frayn's well-researched, necessarily repetitive script. Over and over, Suu Kyi and Michael pledge their mutual ardor Yeoh and Thewlis surely kiss and say "I love you" more times here than in the rest of their respective film careers as they wait for a reprieve from the junta and, more poignant, remain separated through Michael's cancer siege. Currently at a punishing 2 hr. 25 min., The Lady is expected to be slimmed down for its U.S. release. We know there's a good film in there; we hope Besson can find it.