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    Kate Winslet’s Captivating Transformation in “Lee” Illuminates Lee Miller’s Complex Journey

    Exploring the Life and Work of a World War II Photographer

    In “Lee,” Kate Winslet steps into the shoes of Lee Miller, a remarkable figure who transitioned from a model to a photographer, leaving an indelible mark on World War II imagery. Winslet’s performance injects energy and depth into cinematographer Ellen Kuras’ glossy and conventionally structured biopic, placing an enigmatic character at the forefront of the narrative.

    The real-life Lee Miller has experienced a quiet resurgence in recent decades. Carolyn Burke’s 2005 biography meticulously traced Miller’s journey toward becoming a war photographer. In 2015, exhibitions in the United States and Britain showcased her striking photographs of the Blitz and the aftermath of D-Day. What set Miller apart was her radical subjectivity in approaching war images, choosing to capture moments of deep empathy and pain. Given the discomfort her photos evoked, one can only imagine the profound impact firsthand combat experiences had on Miller’s inner world.

    Winslet, in her portrayal of Lee, delves into the subtle nuances of change, underscoring how trauma can both subdue and distort individuals until they become unrecognizable to themselves. This moving portrayal occasionally clashes with the film’s glossiness. Kuras’ film is competently crafted, polished, and seemingly primed for awards, but it occasionally feels at odds with its subject—a restless woman fueled by passion and pain.

    Kuras structures the film through a series of flashbacks triggered by a conversation between an older Lee (also portrayed by Winslet) and a young journalist (Josh O’Connor) in a 1977 English village where Lee spent her final years. Suspicious of the journalist’s interest in her work, she quips, “They’re just pictures.”

    Lee’s style is straightforward and matter-of-fact, reflected in the film’s spare and often muted visual language, courtesy of cinematographer Pawel Edelman. As Lee takes a sip of her drink, she begins her tale in 1938 France, where she enjoyed carefree days under the sun with friends, despite the looming threat of Hitler’s Third Reich. The specter of war gradually encroaches, and Lee and her friends, including Solange (Marion Cotillard), Nusch (Noémie Merlant), and Roland (Alexander Skarsgard), are forced to shift their focus from each other to the impending conflict.

    The film gains momentum as Lee returns to London with Roland, her lover from France. Their relationship is a blend of lust and tenderness, and as the war intensifies, Lee’s yearning for action grows. The screenplay by Liz Hannah, John Collee, and Marion Hume efficiently guides us through Lee’s life during these pivotal years, seamlessly transitioning from sun-drenched moments in France to the somberness of wartime England.

    The film truly comes alive when Lee embarks on her journey to photograph for Vogue. Her editor, Audrey (a stellar Andrea Riseborough), assigns her the task of capturing the war on the homefront, but Lee’s heart lies in the field. Through unconventional means, she becomes an accredited U.S. journalist and heads to the battlefront. There, she encounters David Scherman (Andy Samberg), a LIFE photographer who becomes her friend.

    Their relationship provides insight into the profound changes Lee undergoes as a result of witnessing war. Samberg’s performance stands strong alongside Winslet’s, as their characters rely on each other for comfort and guidance. Together, they capture images that would become iconic, showcasing the surrealist quality of Lee’s vision. She photographs hosiery drying on a line in a women’s barrack and, most strikingly, a young girl tormented by Nazis. It’s when Lee gazes at the latter image that a flood of memories resurfaces, and Winslet masterfully conveys the weight of those unseen traumas.

    However, it’s in this moment and a revelation in the film’s final act that “Lee’s” structure, while effective, appears incongruous with its subject. Lee Miller’s life was a quest filled with disorder, contradictions, and messiness, which lent her photographs a profound clarity. In its attempt to make Miller’s life more comprehensible, the film irons out these complexities, resulting in a narrative that feels less sharp and intriguing than the woman it seeks to depict.

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