In the film “Lee,” Kate Winslet undergoes a remarkable transformation into the iconic Lee Miller, a former model who transitioned into a renowned photographer during World War II. Miller’s powerful images during the conflict forced those removed from the horrors of fascism to confront its brutality. Winslet’s exceptional performance infuses Ellen Kuras’ conventional biopic with a vibrant energy that propels this enigmatic historical figure to the forefront.
Interestingly, Lee Miller’s real-life story has experienced a quiet resurgence in recent decades. In 2005, the Australian writer Carolyn Burke painstakingly penned a biography that meticulously traces Miller’s journey toward becoming a war photographer. In 2015, exhibitions in both the United States and Britain showcased her striking photographs capturing the intensity of the Blitz and the aftermath of D-Day. What sets Miller apart is her distinctive approach to war photography, one driven by radical subjectivity. Instead of merely documenting the events, she chose to encapsulate moments of profound empathy and agony.
Contemplating the discomfort her photos evoked, one can only begin to fathom how a firsthand experience of combat textured Miller’s inner world. Her ability to convey the raw human emotions amidst the chaos of war remains a testament to her unique perspective and enduring legacy.
Kate Winslet, in her portrayal of Lee, grapples with a profound question as well. Her depiction of Lee Miller is a study of the subtleties of transformation, emphasizing how trauma can either dampen one’s essence or twist it into unrecognizable shapes. This poignant performance occasionally clashes with the glossy exterior of Lee’s life. Ellen Kuras’ film is undoubtedly proficient, impeccably polished, and poised for recognition in the awards circuit. While it makes for a captivating cinematic experience, it also seems somewhat discordant with its subject—a restless woman whose passion and pain propelled her into action.
Kuras structures the narrative as a series of flashbacks initiated by a conversation between an older Lee (also played by Winslet) and a young journalist (Josh O’Connor) in a quiet English village in 1977, where Lee spent her final years. Suspicion lingers in the air as she faces the man across from her, inquiring about her work. She dismissively remarks, “They’re just pictures.”
Lee’s style is plain and matter-of-fact, mirrored by the film’s austere and often subdued visual aesthetics (with cinematography by Pawel Edelman). As she takes a sip of her drink, the photographer embarks on her tale, beginning in France in 1938, where she enjoyed leisurely days basking in the sun and sharing lunches with friends. The looming threat of war, with Hitler’s Third Reich gaining power, lingered in the background, but Lee and her companions never anticipated that their lives would change so swiftly. During those times, Solange (played by Marion Cotillard), Nusch (Noémie Merlant), and Roland (Alexander Skarsgard) directed their care exclusively towards each other.
In London, Lee finds herself entangled with Roland, whom she took as her lover during their time in France. Their relationship is a complex blend of both desire and tenderness. As the war gains momentum, Lee’s yearning for active participation intensifies. Liz Hannah (known for “The Post”), John Collee (of “Master and Commander” fame), and Marion Hume’s screenplay adeptly navigates the various phases of Lee’s life during these turbulent years. The sun-soaked memories from France seamlessly transition into the somber days of her life in England.
The narrative truly gains momentum when Lee embarks on her photography journey for Vogue. Her editor, Audrey, brilliantly portrayed by Andrea Riseborough, commissions her to capture the war’s impact on the home front. However, Lee’s heart longs to be on the front lines. She eventually manages to reach the battleground, employing unconventional methods to gain accreditation as a U.S. journalist. Setting off for Europe alone, she crosses paths with David Scherman, played by Andy Samberg, a LIFE photographer who quickly becomes her confidant.
Their relationship becomes a lens through which we witness the profound transformation that war imparts on Lee. Samberg’s character holds his own alongside Winslet, as Lee increasingly relies on her friend for solace and guidance. Together, they navigate the art of photography, aiding each other in capturing powerful images. While “Lee” offers a portrait of a significant chapter in its subject’s life, it also delves into the process of image creation. Cinematographer Pawel Edelman skillfully trains the camera on moments that would later become iconic images, providing viewers with insights into the surrealistic essence of Lee’s artistic vision. Her photographs range from the mundane, such as hosiery drying on a line in a women’s barrack, to the profoundly haunting, like a striking image of a young girl tormented by Nazis. It’s in the contemplation of this last image that a flood of memories rushes back to Lee. Winslet’s expressive face bears the weight of that emotional moment, quivering as her character grapples with unseen and undisclosed traumas.
In that pivotal moment and a significant revelation unveiled in the final act, it becomes apparent that Lee’s narrative structure, while undoubtedly efficient, may not entirely align with its subject. Lee Miller’s life was marked by an incessant quest, a journey characterized by its disorderliness, which paradoxically lent her photographs a remarkable depth and clarity. In its endeavour to render Miller’s life more comprehensible, “Lee” inadvertently smooths over the inherent contradictions and tidies up a complexity that could have resulted in a more provocative and intriguing film.