In 1947, when Aung San Suu Kyi is two years old, her father Aung San leads Burma to independence. But soon afterwards, on 19 July 1947, he along with a group of his colleagues is assassinated by a group of armed men in uniform.
As an adult Suu Kyi goes to England, finds a loving husband, and has a happy family life. But in 1988 her mother's poor health forces her to return to Burma where her father, Aung San, is still widely remembered. When she visits her mother in the hospital in 1988, she meets many of the people who were wounded during the Tatmadaw's crackdown in the 8888 Uprising. She realises that political change is needed in Burma and is soon drawn into the movement to promote reform. She accepts the role of icon in support of self-determination by the Burmese people and devotes herself to activities in support of goals of greater political freedoms.
Suu Kyi founds a political party and clearly wins the 1990 elections. However, the Burmese military refuse to accept the result of the election and move to bring Suu Kyi under control. She and her family become separated when her husband and children are banned from Burma and she is put under a house arrest for more than a decade. Yet their relentless struggling for Suu Kyi's recognition outside Burma is her guarantee she won't be forgotten and cannot disappear unnoticed. Due to her family's efforts, she becomes the first woman in Asia to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Yet their separation continues because Suu Kyi can neither attend the ceremony nor can her husband Michael Aris see her one last time before his early death.
Rebecca Frayn began working on the project after she and her husband, producer Andy Harries had visited Burma in the early 1990s. Harries' production company Left Bank Pictures began development of the script in 2008. Harries wanted Michelle Yeoh as the lead and had the script sent to her. The actress was thrilled because she had always wanted to play Suu Kyi. She visited London to meet the couple. The script was as British as its origin, telling the story solely from Michael Aris' perspective but Michelle Yeoh claimed she brought an Asian insight to it. Her husband Jean Todt (who later on also accompanied the project as accredited producer) encouraged her to contact his country fellowman and friend Luc Besson. Besson accepted the script immediately as an opportunity for him to finally present a real life heroine, a female fighter who wields no other weapons than her human virtues.
During the shooting of the film, news broke that Aung San Suu Kyi's house arrest had been lifted. Luc Besson hesitated to believe what he saw on TV because it looked so much like his recent footage. Yeoh visited Suu Kyi soon afterwards. She would say later it had been like visiting a dear family member. When they discussed the film the actress got the feeling she was still on the film set because Luc Besson had recreated the house so accurately. Aung San Suu Kyi even gave her a hug. On 22 June 2011 Yeoh wanted to visit Suu Kyi a second time but was deported from Burma, reportedly over her portrayal of Aung San Suu Kyi. This time Besson was allowed to meet Suu Kyi. Suu Kyi said she would hesitate to watch the film because she wasn't too sure to be up to it already, although she asked for a copy.
Writer Rebecca Frayn interviewed a number of Suu Kyi's confidants and based her screenplay on the testimonies. Some supporters provided Flynn information only because she wouldn't disclose these sources, and her work was openly appreciated by Suu Kyi's brother-in-law Anthony Aris.
To portray Suu Kyi, Michelle Yeoh watched about two hundred hours of audiovisual material on Suu Kyi and took lessons in Burmese. Her talent for languages is evident when she delivers Suu Kyi's historic speeches in Burmese. The actress had refreshed her skills as a piano player. Despite always having been petite, Michelle Yeoh evidently lost weight to embody Suu Kyi whose son had stressed that his mother was slimmer than Yeoh. As Yeoh told the New York Post, the silk and cotton costumes she wears are Burmese. Luc Besson stated later Michelle Yeoh "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".
Under director Luc Besson's helm, his crew also pursued accuracy. Even the cardinal directions were respected when Suu Kyi's home was rebuilt, so that the audience would see the sunrise in the same way as Suu Kyi. Based on satellite images and about 200 family photographs they constructed a precise 1:1 scale model of this house. Luc Besson himself went to Burma, scouted locations and filmed in disguise. To achieve authenticity Luc Besson engaged many Burmese actors and extras. Some of them, like Thein Win, re-enacted their personal memories. Once or twice the filming of a scene had to stop because Michelle Yeoh's performance of a speech (in Burmese) elicited outbursts of emotion among extras who had originally heard Suu Kyi.
Co-producer Andy Harries concentrated on substantiating the British part of his wife's script. He achieved authenticity of the happy time in Suu Kyi's life, when she lived with her family in the United Kingdom. Their flat was also recreated on a sound stage, although the film includes scenes shot on location in front of the house itself. The scenes showing Michael Aris as a dying cancer patient were also shot on location in the actual hospital.
The Lady had its world premiere on 12 September 2011 at the 36th Toronto International Film Festival. On 29 October 2011 it was shown as closer at the Doha Tribeca Film Festival. Cohen Media Group, the US distributor of the film, had a one-week limited Academy Engagement theatrical run in Los Angeles during 2–8 December 2011. Moreover, there was an exclusive screening at the Asia Society in New York. Mongrel Media released the film in Canada on 6 April 2012.
The European premiere took place when the film served as opening film of the Rome Film Festival on 27 October 2011. In the UK The Lady was distributed by Entertainment Film Distributors. It was distributed by EuropaCorp throughout Continental Europe. In Germany's cinemas the film opened on 15 March.
In Asia The Lady was closer of the International Hua Hin Film Festival where Michelle Yeoh declared she planned on visiting Burma again. The screening had such a packed house that eventually a second screen was provided. On 2 February 2012 the film was released in Thailand and Singapore. On 3 February it had its premiere in Hong Kong, followed by a theatrical release on 9 February. In Burma, a great number of pirated versions are distributed privately.
The film received mixed reviews, generally negative in the west, but stronger in the east. English critics often appreciated the efforts of the leading actress, Michelle Yeoh, and the performance of English actor David Thewlis while criticising director/producer Luc Besson. American critics joined the criticism of Luc Besson. In Asia, the reception was more positive.Review aggregation website Rotten Tomatoes gave the film 1.5 stars and a rating of 34% (based on 65 reviews), with an average score of 5.2./10
United StatesRoger Ebert gave it two and a half stars, citing the strength of Michelle Yeoh and David Thewlis' performances but suggesting that Besson should have stayed away from the biopic genre.
Keith Uhlich (Time Out Chicago) described The Lady as a dutifully crafted biopic.
David Rooney (The Hollywood Reporter) praised Thierry Arbogast's cinematography for "boast(ing) handsome visuals, the South Asian landscapes nicely contrasted with the grey stone structures of Oxford."
Asian Week's Annabelle Udo O'Malley evaluated the film as "certainly worth seeing" for its "beautiful cinematography" and its soundtrack.
Summer J. Holliday (Working Author) said the film was "a synergy of the harsh reality of modern military occupation and the effect it has on parties of either side".
Melissa Silverstein – (indieWire) described "Michael's campaign to get Suu the Nobel Peace Prize to raise her visibility and protect her safety" as one of the film's highlights. She emphasised hereby the scene "of one of her sons accepting the award on her behalf as she listens to ceremony on a radio thousands of miles away". She found that scene "moving".
United KingdomRobbie Collin of The Telegraph called the biopic, 'a pale imitation of an inspirational fighter for democracy.'
Alex von Tunzelmann (The Guardian) criticised historicity, saying that "accounts of the assassination specifically mention that Aung San was seated and did not even have time to stand before the squad fired 13 bullets into him".
Australia / Indonesia / Hong KongDavid Stratton (Australian Broadcasting Corporation) said Suu was "beautifully played by Michelle Yeoh... the epitome of grace and calm".
Julia Suryakusuma (The Jakarta Post) said she had cried while watching the film.
The University of Hong Kong said that "the movie provides a context for us to explore the issues of democracy and freedom and the related issues of humanities" when they announced a screening, inviting Luc Besson, Michelle Yeoh, and Professor Ian Holliday to a post-viewing discussion.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton watched The Lady before she met the real Aung San Suu Kyi.