At this year’s TIFF premiere, Kate Winslet takes center stage in a captivating film that unveils the remarkable journey of Lee Miller, a Vogue model turned groundbreaking World War Two photographer. The movie, aptly titled ‘LEE,’ is based on Antony Penrose’s biography of his mother, and it delves into the multi-faceted life of Lee Miller, a woman who wore many hats.
Lee Miller’s life story is a tapestry of diverse experiences. She began as a New York fashion model, transitioned into a fashion photographer, and mingled with artistic luminaries like Picasso and Man Ray during her time in Paris. However, it was her role as a photographer during World War Two that left an indelible mark. Her black-and-white photographs offered an intimate and unique perspective on the impact of the war on people’s lives. She had an uncanny ability to tell stories through her lens, even capturing the profound narrative within a lone soldier’s boot abandoned on a street.
In ‘LEE,’ Kate Winslet portrays the US-born Miller, delivering a career-defining performance. Winslet not only stars in the film but also initiated and produced it, making this role a crowning achievement in her illustrious career. She embodies the character of a restless, fiercely independent woman who found her voice as a witness to war, paying a psychological price for her relentless pursuit of truth.
For the direction of the film, Kate Winslet enlisted the expertise of renowned cinematographer Ellen Kuras, known for her work on ‘Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.’ Kuras’s masterful direction adds depth and intelligence to every aspect of the film.
The narrative of ‘LEE’ unfolds with a powerful opening scene that thrusts viewers into the heart of battle, with Lee Miller donning a helmet and army fatigues, navigating a perilous street under gunfire. Yet, this scene is just a glimpse of the compelling story that follows.
The film then shifts to 1977, where a 70-year-old Lee Miller (played convincingly by Kate Winslet with prosthetics and makeup) is interviewed at her Sussex home, Farley Farmhouse, by a young man (Josh O’Connor). This interview serves as a backdrop for the narrative, allowing the older Miller to reflect on her extraordinary life. However, it occasionally feels like a conventional storytelling device compared to the unconventional character of Lee Miller.
Before delving into her wartime experiences, the film introduces us to the 1938 Lee Miller in the south of France. At this point in her life, she had already been a model, a muse, and an ingenue, but she sought something more profound. Her encounters with glamorous friends, including Solange (Marion Cotillard), provide a glimpse into her free-spirited life among artists and writers. It’s here that she meets Roland Penrose (Alexander Skarsgård), a painter and art dealer, and their relationship takes a dramatic turn. While the film takes liberties with the timeline of their relationship, the essence of their connection remains true.
The film truly comes into its own when Lee Miller embarks on her journey as a war photographer, capturing the emotional and psychological toll of the conflict. Working as a photographer for British Vogue in wartime London, she forges a close professional relationship with the magazine’s editor, Audrey Withers (Andrea Riseborough). Her collaboration with photographer David Scherman (Andy Samberg) further deepens her impact.
While ‘LEE’ explores Lee Miller’s relationship with David Scherman and Roland Penrose, these male roles are relatively underdeveloped, aligning with the film’s focus on the female perspective. The film powerfully highlights the challenges Miller faced as a female photographer during wartime, where she often had to document the experiences of women barred from certain areas of military bases.
As Miller becomes accredited as a journalist by the US military, the film’s narrative reaches its pinnacle, showcasing the emotional and psychological cost of her work. Her journey takes her to Normandy and St Malo, France, where she faces the harsh realities of war. Kate Winslet brilliantly conveys the toll this knowledge takes on Lee Miller as she confronts and documents unbearable scenes.
One of the film’s most impactful moments occurs when Lee Miller enters Dachau, and the interviewer unveils the photograph she took that day—piles of corpses—a haunting image that captures the depths of human suffering. Ellen Kuras’s direction elegantly portrays Miller’s unique perspective without excessive dramatic emphasis. The war scenes speak volumes on their own.
Alexandre Desplat’s score beautifully complements the film, delivering a subtly piercing beauty that enhances the storytelling.
While the second half of ‘LEE’ is riveting and emotionally resonant, the film’s first half could have benefited from the same level of intensity and effectiveness. Nevertheless, ‘LEE’ is a compelling portrait of a remarkable woman and her transformative journey through wartime photography.
Antony Penrose’s biography includes a letter from Lee Miller describing her challenges when crossing the Hungarian border in 1945, an adventure she likened to good cinema. Ultimately, ‘LEE’ vividly captures her extraordinary life and the indomitable spirit that drove her to document the horrors of war.