Lee Review TIFF 2023

TIFF 2023: Lee Review

Cinematographer and documentarian Ellen Kuras directs the spotlight onto trailblazing war correspondent Lee Miller with her directorial narrative feature debut, Lee. Focussing on two distinct periods in the photographer’s life, the film aims to do justice to this singular woman who chronicled some of the most disturbing but important events of World War Two. Though there are some particularly fascinating avenues left frustratingly unexplored, Lee succeeds in its most integral mission: ensuring that Miller will be held up alongside other greats of her time.

When we first meet the American, played with a riveting, single-minded focus by Oscar-winner Kate Winslet, it’s 1977 and she’s being interviewed by a journalist (Josh O’Connor) keen to find out more about her work during the war. Far more interested in a drink and a smoke, Miller is reticent to discuss it at all, and far less likely to give it any real importance. But she eventually gives in and audiences are transported back to the late 1930s and the photographer’s time in the South of France.

Though initially a model, she has been travelling the world building a reputation as a photographer with an impressive eye for truth and style. By the late 1930s, her travels have brought her to the south of France where she rubs shoulders with surrealists like Paul and Nusch Éluard (Vincent Colombe and Noémie Merlant), and meets British artist Roland Penrose (Alexander Skarsgard), her future husband. The rise of fascism casts a long shadow and Miller heads back to England. Though Penrose, a pacifist,  quickly finds a position to help the armed forces, Lee feels useless and becomes determined to use her camera to help the war effort. Her ambition is realized, thanks to a position at British Vogue. But after overcoming an almost constant barrage of sexism and misogynistic regulations, she arrives and chronicles some of the most important moments of the latter half of the war: the liberation of Paris, of Dachau, and of Hitler’s personal apartment. Miller’s worldview shifts quickly, and her personal ambitions are subsumed by an all-encompassing need to communicate the truth to those back home.

Winslet’s performance is worthy of Oscar consideration. The entire film rests on her eminently capable shoulders and she delivers a fierce, driven, and nuanced performance. Miller was an ambitious woman who went looking for purpose and found it in bearing witness to the worst that humanity had to offer. It’s unsurprising that her war experiences left her extremely scarred, but the film also lets us know that she became far too familiar with trauma long before her trips to the front. 

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Though many of Lee’s catalogue of photographs are meticulously recreated throughout the film, director Kuras makes an interesting, and effective, decision to not linger on what Miller witnessed and documented, but rather on her emotional and visceral reaction to the realities of war. Documentaries, books, and the deep, dark areas of the internet mean the majority of us know exactly what she’s seeing and it’s not necessary to belabour the nature of evil to drive home the importance of reporting on it. We’re horrified because she is.

Audrey Withers (Andrea Riseborough, always flawless) immediately sees the value of Miller’s fresh perspective on the world and on the war. Miller focuses on elements and subjects that the majority of male photographers wouldn’t even register, and it’s obvious how effective that is in communicating to both the readers of Vogue, and women everywhere. Miller’s subjects allowed half the population to feel seen in a way that hadn’t before.  

Having a first-time narrative director at the helm of this intimate yet epic story might seem an odd choice at a glance, but Kuras’ perspective adds quite a bit to this cinematic showcase. The director has spent the majority of her career in the largely male-dominated profession of cinematography and a great deal of it in the realm of non-fiction. She has spent years looking through a lens in search of truth, just as Miller had, and was one of the first people documenting the situation in a post-war El Salvador. Her experience perfectly informs her meticulously direction, and the partnership between Kuras and Winslet proves just as effective.

The film’s second half is far stronger than its first and it pulls very few punches, building and sustaining tension as the war stretches everyone to their thinnest point. Each supporting actor contributes to that overwhelming sense of loss, shock and collective grief, particularly Riseborough, Marion Cotillard, and Andy Samberg–playing against type here as Miller’s fellow correspondent, Life photographer Davey Scherman. It’s a community in shock, with Winslet at its core.

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Though we understandably linger on a very specific and formative part of the trailblazer’s life, Lee frustratingly brushes by the post-traumatic stress she experienced in her post-war years. We’re given a glimpse–a literal list of moments–but the film slams the door shut before we’re able to do much more than register what may have occurred. What is clear is that the results of her compartmentalization are tragic. Her work cost her dearly, but how it truly affected her, her daily life, and those around her is frustratingly left unexplored. It’s a niggling missing piece of the full Lee Miller puzzle, but it ultimately doesn’t take away from the overall picture of the trailblazer.

It’s clear that Lee was a true labour of love for everyone involved–from Kuras and Winslet on down–and they’ve all delivered an impressive portrait liable to linger with audiences. Just one of a host of amazing women-centric stories still being discovered and uncovered, let’s hope that Lee Miller’s story becomes as well-known as it deserves to be.

Lee had its world premiere at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival.
Head here for all of our TIFF 2023 coverage.

 



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