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TIFF 2023 Review: Lee – “Compelling and moving moments”

Courtesy of TIFF

Kate Winslet rarely disappoints, especially in period pieces, and the same rings true in Lee, a biopic that tells the story of Lee Miller, a photographer and war correspondent for British Vogue during the Second World War.  Her photos became some of the most impactful of the time as she conveyed brutal and painful images of war and the realities of concentration camps to the outside world.

Who better to tell the story of a photographer than a cinematographer?  In this case that is Ellen Kuras (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind amongst her credits), who can understand the intricacies and intimacy that Miller captured in her photographs, many of which were recreated for the film.  Lee is Kuras’ second feature film and it is polished and refined, if perhaps overly conventional considering that Lee Miller seemed to be anything but.

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The film is structured around an interview between an elder Lee Miller in 1977 and a journalist (Josh O’Connor, also at the festival with La Chimera) who is asking her about her work.  She seems uninterested, “They’re just pictures,” she says.  But, there are stories behind each one, and that’s our entry into Miller’s life, starting in bright beautiful seaside France before the war, until the end of it in 1945, where Miller famously and controversially takes a photo in Hitler’s bathtub.

“I was good at drinking, having sex, and taking pictures,” Lee narrates, and so she did all three, as much as she could.  Meeting her partner (Alexander Skarsgård) prior to the war, the two were separated as Lee tried everything she could to get to Europe to contribute to covering the war effort.  Miller was never far from a pack of cigarettes, her camera, and an accompanying surge of misogyny that prevented her from things like going to press briefings and from entering certain military facilities.  However, she did come across David E. Scherman (Andy Samberg), a LIFE Magazine photographer who never looked at her with that lens, and who would become her travel companion and lifelong friend.

At first, the casting of Andy Samberg seems a curious choice.  He is mostly Lee Miller’s ‘sidekick’ in this movie, without heavy lengths of dialogue, often just reacting to Winslet and his surroundings.  Yet, he holds his own in this film and enters a club of comedic actors such as Steve Carrell and Jim Carrey that successfully make the transition to drama.  It’s wonderful to see the platonic relationship between Scherman and Miller develop as the emotional toll they face grows deeper.  Winslet and Samberg have an affable chemistry and completely elevate the film.

In the end, Lee is a serviceable biopic and entertaining, but I can’t help but think that Lee Miller would have wanted more.  Its script feels sometimes, especially in the early parts of the film, like a string of poignant one-liners strung together instead of creating more natural conversation.  While its structure means you’re apt to finish the film relatively satisfied, for its subject, who was a supremely ambitious woman who was always pushing boundaries, Lee just like feels safe, awards-ready fare.    There are compelling and moving moments here, especially in the third act, and hopefully, that will be enough for people to seek out Lee Miller’s work, which is where the real emotional power lies.

Lee had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival on September 9th.  For more information please head to

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