There are few actors who command the screen like Kate Winslet, and with Ellen Kuras’ Lee, the thespian has one of her sturdiest roles in years. As tenacious, groundbreaking American war photographer Lee Miller, Winslet appears in nearly every scene, dominates nearly every conversation, and says more with an arched eyebrow than many actors can say across pages upon pages of dialogue. Winslet’s work here is every bit as strong as the performances she gave in films like Sense and Sensibility, Revolutionary Road, Little Children, and The Reader. There’s argument to be made that Lee features her finest turn.
What of the film itself? The photography of Lee Miller may have been bold and brilliant, but Ellen Kuras’ Lee isn’t. It’s a fine film, an involving one, and Kuras is best-known as cinematographer for a stellar list of films––Swoon, I Shot Andy Warhol, Summer of Sam, Bamboozled, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. There’s no faulting the visuals of Lee, which has its share of memorable imagery.
The issue here is the screenplay by Liz Hannah, John Collee, and Marion Hume. In telling the story of how Miller, an ex-model and friend to artists and poets, became one of the key photographers of World War II, the writers turn to a standard framing device: the late-life interview that slowly unveils one’s story. The Crown’s Josh O’Connor plays the interviewer, while Winslet in old-age makeup dodges his questions. There is a bit of twist––more of a revelation, really––connected to this interview, but it still plays like a dusty old trope.
Lee is far better when it simply tells Miller’s story, minus the voiceover and framing. Chronologically, we begin in late-1930s France as ex-model-turned-photographer Lee Miller and a group of friends drink, gossip, and talk of the role of the artist (when not commenting ominously on the rise of Adolf Hitler). As the dashing Roland Penrose (Alexander Skarsgård) enters the picture, he and Miller fall in love. She accompanies him to London and scores a job at British Vogue.
Eventually German bombs are dropping on Britain, and this is when Miller’s talent for photography is truly clear. She is able to take photos that are utterly unique, seeing the simple beauty in, for example, women’s undergarments drying on a window that no man could. A key relationship is formed with fellow American photographer David E. Scherman, played remarkably well by Andy Samberg, and after scoring credentials to take photos of the war in Europe. Eventually she is allowed to move to the front lines, a harrowing experience that results in some of her greatest work.
Lee‘s finest moments are those offering genuine surprise. One is a lengthy sequence in which Miller and Scherman find Hitler’s apartment, now occupied by American troops. Miller bribes their way in and gains entry to the bathroom. Here she stages, with Scherman’s assistance, one of her most stunning photos––taking a bath, a photo of Hitler behind her. It is an astonishing, tense, even darkly comical sequence. Lee needed more moments like this. The scenes that follow, in which Miller and Scherman see the concentration camps firsthand, are vividly realized. But the section showing her return to Penrose and Vogue makes little dramatic impact. The ending never comes close to matching Lee’s high points.
Still, there is much to appreciate in Kuras’ film. The director has assembled a bravura cast. Samberg is an inspired choice for Scherman, and providing fine support are Marion Cotillard, Noémie Merlant, and an enjoyably over-the-top Andrea Riseborough. Fittingly, though, none of the supporting actors make the same impression as Winslet. She has made Lee Miller a fully fleshed-out, compelling, appropriately complex protagonist.
In many ways Lee is a perfect festival crowd-pleaser––handsomely made, well-acted, based on a true story, filled with recognizable stars. While it is not a great film, it is undoubtedly a good one, and that’s enough to warrant a recommendation.
Lee premiered at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival.