The remarkable life of war photographer Lee Miller has been a little-known tale of courage and determination, one that deserves the treatment given it by Kate Winslet, who plays the title role at the Toronto Film Festival with nuance and flair.
Miller, a photographer for Vogue in London in the 1940s, fought for the right to go to the front lines of World War II with the Allied troops, determined to bear witness to the realities of war.
But those realities were much harsher than she could have imagined and Miller ended up capturing up-close images of heartrending moments of suffering and survival – including some of the first shocking images of the death camp, Dachau.
Winslet, who also co-produced the film, plays Miller as the American-in-Europe free spirit she was, opening with a nude lunch among painter and artist friends (including Marion Cotillard) in the south of France in the late 1930s. She transitions to London as the clouds of war gather and darken. Alexander Skarsgaard plays her lover and the husband who departs to do his duty. Miller wants neither babies nor safety – she wants to be part of the urgency of the moment.
Miller, who was a model, convinces Vogue to use her photography. But increasingly she becomes alive to the dangers of fascism. Together with Life magazine photographer Dave Scherman (Andy Samberg, in a rare dramatic mode), they head to France and the front lines of history.
First, the liberation of Paris. They sneak into Hitler’s abandoned home and Scherman shoots Miller taking a bath in the Fuhrer’s tub. They are also among the first photographers to enter the death camps at Buchenwald and Dachau on the day of the liberation. Lee’s photographs capture some of the most searing images of man’s inhumanity to his fellow humans – piles of corpses, starving children, the emaciated dead spilling out of railroad cattle cars. The images are part of the evidence of history.
But they were filed away and kept from her son until after her death.
At the premiere of the film Miller’s son Antony Penrose, along with director Ellen Kuras and producer Kate Solomon, said the idea for the film began when Winslet bought a table that had belonged to Miller.
“She said, ‘Why has there never been a film about her before?’” director Kuras recalled Winslet asking her.
She set out to make it happen. “She started off by having an immersive quality of research,” said Penrose. “She’d come to the archive and read and say very little. And then come out with really poignant questions. This went on for weeks. But when I saw her on set I understood.”
He continued: “Their personalities are very similar – incredible generosity and incredible curiosity. Both daring. Both very beautiful but highly intelligent.”
Biopics can be tricky and we’ve been seeing a steady stream of them this year and last, but it’s especially interesting to see a biopic of a relatively unknown historic figure – and more so a woman of unusual accomplishment. But these are also rarer and harder to sell to audiences. (The last female war correspondent film, about the intrepid Marie Colvin, “A Private War” in 2018, did not get traction.)
The movie uses a familiar device of the aged subject reflecting on her life in her living room, in this case fueled by vodka and endless cigarettes, talking to her son (Josh O’Connor). It offers framing but little else.
“Lee” is for sale by CAA and UTA.