Film reviews: The Lady | Mysteries of Lisbon

Alistair Harkness reviews the latest films appearing in the cinemas...

The Lady (12A)

Directed by: Luc Besson

Starring: Michelle Yeoh, David Thewlis, Benedict Wong, Jonathan Woodhouse

Rating: **

One might think Luc Besson would have learned his lesson after his last failed attempt at making a biopic of a strong, historically important woman. But no, having inflicted the woeful Joan of Arc on us back in 1999 (to significant derision), he now turns his attention to Burmese democracy campaigner Aung San Suu Kyi, who spent years under house arrest in Rangoon at the behest of the brutal military junta who run the country.

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Presenting her story in more-or-less straightforward style, the film focuses on how Aung sacrificed her chance of a regular family life with her two children and understanding British husband – the Oxford academic Dr Michael Aris – in order to fulfil her political destiny and become a beacon for democracy in her home country.

Michelle Yeoh plays Aung with dignified grace, but it’s a perfunctory performance, one that doesn’t especially elevate the film or illuminate what, precisely, it is about her that has inspired so many people. Not that Yeoh is helped much by Besson in this respect: his efforts to clue us into what makes her tick are fairly crude, amounting to multiple shots of Aung reading a dog-eared book about Gandhi while spoon-feeding us lots of information via international news reports.

Still, at least Yeoh isn’t forced to endure lots of creepy make-up. The same can’t be said for David Thewlis, whose performance as her devoted husband gets lost somewhere under the multiple layers of prosthetics needed to turn him into an ageing – and increasingly ill – academic. The tragedy of their relationship – particularly the cruel way the military attempts to break Aung’s spirit by denying her the opportunity to see him on his deathbed – is mostly reduced to a series of flashpoint moments than don’t really do justice to the wrenching emotional toll this must have had on each of them. It’s a well-intentioned film, to be sure, just not a very good one.

Mysteries of Lisbon (PG)

Directed by: RaOúl Ruiz

Starring: João Luís Arrais, Maria João Bastos, Adriano Luz

Rating: ***

When the prolific Chilean director Raúl Ruiz died in August of this year, aged 70, he left behind a substantial body of work without ever really breaking through as a major figure on the world cinema scene. His last film to get even a limited release in the UK was a somewhat dreary biopic of the artist Gustav Klimt (it starred John Malkovich at his pretentious worst) and you’d have to go all the way back to his 1999 film about Marcel Proust, Time Regained (also featuring Malkovich), to find him having much impact internationally.

Nevertheless, someone has seen fit to release his final project, Mysteries of Lisbon, as a four-and-a-half-hour film, making it one of the most wilfully indulgent releases of a year that has already featured Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life and a three-hour Transformers movie.

Originally conceived as a six-part television mini-series, Mysteries of Lisbon is an epic adaptation of a 19th-century novel by the Portuguese writer Camilo Castelo Branco which tells the time-jumping story of an illegitimate boy whose very existence becomes a portal into a world of forbidden love, adultery, war and treachery.

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Russian Doll-like in structure, the film reveals stories within stories as bedridden 14-year-old orphan Pedro (João Luís Arrais) meets his long-lost mother Ângela (Maria João Bastos) and begins to learn about his parentage.

Narrated by the orphanage’s director, a priest called Father Dinis (Adriano Luz), we also learn more about his own mysterious life and his journey to the priesthood. Within both stories multiple characters emerge and the challenge of the film is really keeping track of who’s who and what their relationships are to one another – something that’s particularly tricky given the duplicitous natures of nearly everyone featured in the film.

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Compelling for a while, in the end this narrative jigsaw puzzle doesn’t quite justify the time commitment required to make sense of it.