LEE (TIFF 2023) – Review by Rachel West

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Once an artist’s muse, Lee Miller revolutionized the way the world looked at wartime photography. Now, first-time director Ellen Kuras’ is telling her story in the compelling portrait, Lee, featuring another awards-worthy performance by Kate Winslet

“I was good at drinking, having sex, and taking pictures. And I did all three as much as I could.” These words by an elderly Lee Miller (Winslet) serve as our introduction to the Vogue photojournalist, paving the way for an incredible story of one woman’s talent and determination. Sitting for an interview with a young journalist (Josh O’Connor), Miller recounts her days in France in the late 1930s, indulging in topless afternoon lunches and flowing wine before the outbreak of war wreaks havoc on history. The former model sets her sights on the frontlines, chronicling the aftereffects of battle in a time.

Lee is a conventional biopic, which is by no means a detriment. It sets out to tell a straightforward story of Miller’s life and it does it quite well. This is not a film that takes place on the battlefield. Despite one explosive action sequence that opens the film, Kuras makes sure that Miller’s story is front and centre at all times. It is her journey we are meant to follow as viewers are guided through her photographs, including her infamous portrait in Hitler’s bathtub.

Winslet is superb as the unapologetic photographer, assured in both her work and her naked body. She takes on the role with great gusto in a serious performance that most closely resembles her Oscar-winning turn in 2008’s The Reader. This is a passion project for Winslet and it shows. The actress tracked down the rights to Miller’s story, told via her son Antony Penrose’s biography of his mother, back in 2015, and helped assemble the creatives behind the film.

Winslet and Kuras share a history, with the director having worked as a cinematographer on Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind which starred the actress. Kuras shows a deft hand at directing Miller’s story, letting the real photographs speak for themselves. Her camera lingers over Miller’s images, sometimes striking, sometimes disturbing as the world is confronted with what is happening in Europe. There are no words needed for these photos of war, no dramatic recreations, just the images and Winslet’s face are all that’s required.

As Miller, Winslet commands the screen but never overshadows her scene partners, especially Andy Samberg. As Life magazine photographer Davy Scherman, Samberg excels in the dramatic role, trading quips and looks of understanding with his fellow photographer. Their friendship and support for each other, while they document humanity at its worst, gives added depth to the biopic. Equally well-cast is Andrea Riseborough as Vogue wartime editor and journalist, Audrey Withers. Alexander Skarsgard is effective as Miller’s partner Roland, though his British accent sounds a bit wonky at times. Another Oscar winner, Marion Cotillard makes a cameo appearance but uses her minimal screen time to great effect.

Lee is the type of movie that plays exceptionally well for a festival audience, and with the talent in front of and behind the camera including Oscar winner Alexandre Desplat as the film’s composer, will surely become a player this awards season. With this performance, Winslet seems almost a shoo-in to score her eighth Academy Award nomination. Word-of-mouth buzz is likely to propel the film onto the top of fall must-see lists, but, perhaps more importantly it will leave audiences curious about the real-life Lee Miller and her extraordinary life.

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Rachel West

Based in Toronto, Rachel is a Senior Film Critic at ThatShelf.com. She has interviewed everyone from Michael Fassbender to Miss Piggy and has reported live from TIFF, the SAG Awards, Comic-Con, and the Golden Globes, among other events, and has contributed film writing and content to outlets including ET Canada, Telefilm, Global News, The National Post, Cineplex Magazine, and Letterboxd, among others. She is a member of the Toronto Film Critics Association. Find her on Twitter: @rachel_is_here