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'Lee' Review

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September 26, 2023
Hunter Friesen
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Lee premiered at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival. It is currently seeking US distribution.

There are a lot of famous actors in Lee - Kate Winslet, Alexander Skarsgård, Marion Cotillard, Noémie Merlant, Andrea Riseborough, Andy Samberg, Josh O’Connor are just a few - but only one of them is playing a character. Everyone but Winslet, who also spearheaded the project and serves as producer, seems to be playing WWII dress up. The same can also be said for screenwriters Liz Hannah, Marion Hume, and John Collee, and director Ellen Kuras, the latter being the most disappointing considering her impressive career as a cinematographer, aiding the creations from visionary auteurs such as Martin Scorsese, Spike Lee, Jonathan Demme, and Michel Gondry.

Things open in 1977 as a young journalist (Josh O’Connor) interviews Elizabeth ‘Lee’ Miller (Winslet in dodgy old age makeup, also a hindrance for Andrea Riseborough) about her life. Lee never fakes putting on a friendly persona, believing that all interviews are investigations and that no one can understand the whole truth. But she goes on, recounting her younger days. By 1940 she was at a crossroads in her life, too old to remain the pinup supermodel she was in her 20s, and not taken seriously as a photographer and journalist because she doesn’t have a Y chromosome.

When World War II breaks out across Europe, Lee finds herself a job at Vogue, although she’s forced to stay and photograph the homefront instead of being on the frontlines like she wants. But that opportunity comes soon enough, putting her down a charging path around wartorn cities and landscapes with LIFE photographer David Scherman (Andy Samberg). As the only woman in a sea of dead and dying men, Lee offers a different perspective on the carnage, taking pictures of the civilian women who are just as beaten and battered, as well as the normalities of past lives that have become extinct.

Kuras mentioned during the TIFF introduction that Winslet started pushing for the project in 2015 during the afterparty for The Dressmaker (also premiering at TIFF). The eight years of grueling work to get to this moment is evident on the screen, with Winslet delivering a movie star performance full of glamor and depth. She carries the entire emotional weight of the film, doggidly wearing it as she trudges deeper into hell. The culmination comes as she and Scherman are some of the first Americans to witness the atrocities of Buchenwald and Dachau. Kuras treats these moments with sensitivity and poise, reigning in Alexandre Desplat’s score, allowing the silence to do the talking.

But apart from that moment, much of Lee is as flat and uneventful as a North Dakota landscape (trust me, I’ve driven through my fair share of those). Kuras nor the script offer Winslet any aid in giving an inside look at Miller, instead opting to follow the conventional Wikipedia model for a biopic. We get the who, what, when and where of Miller’s life, but rarely do we get a satisfactory answer to why.

Lee Miller lived a life worthy of a Kate Winslet performance, but she also deserved a movie that captured her story with the same level of interest. It’s neither good nor bad, just plainly forgettable. And with a subject like this, that’s probably the biggest sin to commit.

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