AFI Fest Film Review – ‘Lee’ is a Fitting Tribute to its Devoted War Photographer Subject

AFI Fest Film Review – ‘Lee’ is a Fitting Tribute to its Devoted War Photographer Subject

Bearing witness to something can be an incredibly powerful act. That’s especially true in an age where pictures and video footage can be easily manipulated or miscaptioned, egging on those seeking confirmation bias for their particular cause without the appropriate or responsible fact-checking. Ellen Kuras’ narrative feature directorial debut Lee spotlights an important, trailblazing figure in the field of war photography who captured so much that needed to be seen by the world which could only be transmitted by her camera.

Before the outbreak of World War II, Lee Miller (Kate Winslet) is a fashion model living a bohemian life of luxury with friends in France. When she meets painter Roland Penrose (Alexander Skarsgård), the two marry and move to London. When he goes away to war, she too seeks to cement herself into a new field where she possesses a tremendous skill. Despite being told that Vogue won’t send someone who’s not a member of the military to the front, she pushes to go anyway and ends up bearing witness to some of the most horrifying sights of the second World War.

This film is based on a true story as chronicled by Miller’s son Antony, who only discovered what his mother did during the war years later. In the film, Antony (Josh O’Connor) speaks with his mother as she reflects back on what she endured and shows him picture after picture that she took with a story behind each one. Though she constantly faced exclusion from first the war itself and then military briefings near the battlefield due to her gender, Miller found ways to gain access and prove herself with the power of her camera and her distinct perspective on each situation.

Both this film’s world and its protagonist go through tremendous transformations over the course of its nearly two hours, representing the irreversible shift of the entire world in that era. The Miller audiences first meet is free and unserious, sitting topless outside at a meal with friends, and it’s precisely because of that reputation that she works so hard to prove herself, determined to be hired by Vogue in the first place and then to be sent directly into conflict. She knows who to befriend – namely, Vogue’s editor Audrey Withers (Andrea Riseborough) and her own counterpart at Life magazine, David Scherman (Andy Samberg), who both become critical allies for her.

This is a fitting role for Winslet at this point in her career, transitioning from idealistic characters at the start like in Titanic to much more hardened figures in projects like Ammonite and Mare of Easttown. She knows how to gauge and mediate the range of Miller’s emotions, including when to project strength and when to let her guard down, such as when she barely recognizes an old friend who has been through so much when they cross paths in a newly liberated France. It may not be her most outstanding turn, but even a decent Winslet performance is still worthy of some celebration.

The cast of Lee is populated by a handful of notable names, including Marion Cotillard and Noémie Merlant, who work together well to support Winslet. Samberg is an interesting choice for a dramatic role but serves the part well enough, and Riseborough infuses a degree of passion for her field that feels resonant. Ultimately, this film’s best asset is Kuras, who has decades of experience as a cinematographer that lend itself well to establishing this film’s point of view from a photography perspective, lensing both the scenes and what’s within them in a poignant and effective manner. This doesn’t feel like a sensational exploitation of trauma but instead an important tribute to those whose stories are immortalized by the very act of them being documented.

Grade: B+

Check out more of Abe Friedtanzer’s articles.

Lee makes its US premiere in the Special Screenings section at AFI Fest 2023.

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