Photo Courtesy of TIFF.

#TIFF23: “Lee” is an Endearing if Slightly Problematic Look at an American Legend

Editor’s Note: This piece was written during the 2023 SAG-AFTRA strike. Without the labour of the actors and other creatives involved in the project(s) mentioned here, Pages and Pictures would not exist. Pages and Pictures stands firmly behind SAG-AFTRA members as they fight for fair labour conditions. 

Lee is a Kate Winslet special, showcasing her immense talent and breathtaking range. While this movie is a reflection on the life of one of America’s most gifted photographers, it is a venue for Winslet to remind everyone that she is going nowhere soon. Unfortunately, while this movie has much to say, it doesn’t always live up to its full potential. The highs are breathtaking, and the lows leave much to be desired.

It makes sense to begin with the positives. As already mentioned, Winslet is nothing less than an absolute star. In every scene, she makes clear that she is absolutely the correct choice to play this deeply complex woman. Winslet makes every effort to portray Lee Miller in all of her humanity. She perfectly encapsulates the bullish determination Miller would have had to call upon to exist in this man’s world. Winslet makes it easy to believe that Miller had to embrace this kind of delightful brazenness in order to achieve the success she did. 

Additionally, the supporting cast features Andy Samberg and Josh O’Connor with perhaps surprisingly endearing performances. These two men understand the assignment deeply in that they never once pull focus from Winslet’s performance. Instead, both of them exist as characters based on real people who are only designed to support Winslet’s journey as she embodies Lee Miller. The fact that they remain firmly in the background is a welcome change of perspective. 

Lee, unfortunately, falls into a common trope among World War 2 movies, even those based on actual stories. The problem, while not at all new, has only gotten worse over time. The movie lacks the perspective about what World War 2 was about at its core. This is unfortunate, as Miller’s photography was many people’s introduction to the full horrors of the Holocaust. There are so many missed opportunities to lean into this fact and to digest the destruction of the Holocaust through Lee Miller’s eyes. 

Of course, it’s reasonable that the real Miller may not have fully appreciated the legacy of her photographs, particularly those taken of the aftermath of the concentration camps. However, the fact that this movie takes pains to continually remind the audience that World War 2 devastated more communities outside of the Jewish people ignores the fact that this was a targeted genocide. As the movie continues, this reads as intentional erasure. It’s a missed opportunity to dig deep into the roots of the Holocaust and for the characters here to reflect on what led to the concentration camps that Miller photographed. 

Finally, for all of the nuance that this movie embodies at times, there are many missed opportunities to demonstrate the challenges French civilians, in particular, found themselves in during this time. In one particular scene, there’s an opportunity to show that, yes, French women were taken advantage of by German soldiers. However, in a broader sense, French collaboration with the Germans was incredibly common and was responsible for the death and suffering of many French Jews. This story isn’t up to the task of portraying this complex historical reality.

Lee could have been so much more than what it ultimately became. With passionate performances and a compelling story, this should have been a necessary addition to the plethora of World War 2 stories that have been adapted for the big screen. Sadly, the amount of missed opportunities leaves too much to be desired. It is a shame, as Lee Miller absolutely deserves to be remembered in this way. Hopefully, this movie will not be the last opportunity to do so. 

Lee was featured at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival.

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