A new trend on the fall festival circuit this year is the biopic of the unknown hero, something that seems unthinkable now in the digital age. There’s One Life, about the Schindler-like achievements of Nicholas Winton, who saved nearly 700 Jewish children from certain death in German-occupied Prague. There’s Rustin, about the gay, Black activist who organized the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom — literally, right down to the toilet facilities — and had to wait 50 years for an official thank-you.
And there’s also Lee, which is slightly different from these previous two films in that its subject — photographer and former model Lee Miller — is pretty well known in all the fields she’s associated with, mostly in the world of art. But Ellen Kuras’s film is a thoughtful attempt to step back from what Miller actually did and to focus on the way she actually did it, usually with little encouragement and hardly any gratitude.
Refreshingly, although it is a kind of Hidden Figures-style exposé of the way women’s stories are erased from history, it isn’t simply a call-out of systemic sexism, it’s a bigger, more inclusive story about art and the purpose of art, about the point where creativity and reportage overlap: a frontline Miller crossed (figuratively and literally) many times during the Second World War.
After a tense wartime prologue — Miller in camo, running from gunfire — the framing device is disappointingly prosaic in terms of what we’re about to see: Miller (played convincingly by Kate Winslet in every timeframe) is being interviewed by a man (Josh O’Connor) who we presume to be a journalist. He wants to hear her story, and she says there isn’t one. He has her photographs in front of him, some of the most famous images of all time, and she shrugs, “They’re just pictures.” The exchange is frosty. “What do you expect to get from this?” she asks. “What do I get?” The journalist seems offended. “Does it have to be transactional?” She glares at him. “Well, that’s what life is.”
To be modern ears, raised in peacetime, it’s a surprising response, but Lee Miller (1907-1977) lived through a great deal of the 20th century, a particularly transactional time for women who were wanting to be heard and seen in art, business and politics. The film goes on to suggest that part of the reason Miller was underestimated was because of her bohemian milieu: early on, the film finds her at a lunch in the south of France where she goes topless over salad amid talk of Adolf Hitler. A surprise guest arrives — art dealer and painter Roland Penrose (Alexander Skarsgård) — and Miller instinctively covers up, since he’s a newcomer to the group. Penrose is certainly in synch with them, however, and the idea that “the only sane response to tyranny is to paint, create… and drink.”
Despite her initial modesty, Miller has an affair with Penrose, as she will with other men, and to be honest, this fruity to-and-fro will become a bit confusing from hereon in, just as it must have been for him, them and her. Lee becomes much more satisfying when focusing on Miller’s artistic life, the trip that switched in her head after being seen as a muse and a model for so long. “I’d rather take a picture than be one,” she says, and, boy, does she put that philosophy into action.
The meat of the film is Miller’s foray into the theater of war in Europe, i.e., the actual war, where young people, mostly men, were being mutilated and killed in action. Miller is refused military accreditation (which she overcomes after much persistence) and often hears phrases like, “You can’t be here, lady.” This might seem terribly sexist now, but when Miller encounters a military hospital, with all its attendant horrors, she begins to wonder if they have a point. It’s the first clear sign of a conflict between Miller the human being and Miller the artist: “Even when I wanted to look away, I knew I couldn’t,” she admits.
It’s worth noting here that another thing that Kuras’s film highlights is that some of Miller’s most important work was commissioned by a women’s magazine, British Vogue. Despite the best efforts of a jealous Cecil Beaton (somewhat thrown under the bus here as a fellow Vogue snapper), Miller’s editor there, Audrey Withers (played by Andrea Riseborough), puts through harrowing images that the U.K.’s newspapers and state media either refuse to print or are too scared to acknowledge.
As these fragments of Miller’s life unfold, one begins to wonder how they will all eventually tie together, and it’s really no spoiler to report that they don’t. Well, not quite. Like Miller, herself, Lee ends up being whole bunch of contradictions that, while being narratively frustrating, do make sense, certainly honoring the wishes of a woman who made it a point “never to promise anything”.
Early on, you can see why Miller wouldn’t want a film made of her life, since, when anyone tells the story of a photographer (or any other kind of storyteller), they’re just telling a story about the way stories are told. But what works about Lee is the way it transcends that, by allowing its subject an unknowable inner life that, it transpires, even her own son can only guess at but can’t access. In a role that may be deemed too nuanced or not feelgood enough for awards season, Kate Winslet really nails this super-important aspect of the character: Miller refused to be analyzed or interpreted; this from a woman who staged a photo of herself taking a bath in the Fuhrer’s tub on the day of his suicide — the word “provocative”… Well, it self-combusts here.
For many, Lee will be seen as a vehicle for Winslet, and they won’t be disappointed by her performance, which, without wishing to jinx this multi-garlanded actor’s future, will surely register as one of her best. They might, however, have some bones to pick with a film that fully reflects both its subject’s bullishness and her many paradoxes. “I was born determined,” she says at one point. Which is so very, very true of a woman who went off to war even after being reminded — or did she think she was being “told” and take umbrage? — that she didn’t even speak French.