Photojournalist Eugene Smith (Johnny Depp) is broke, unemployable and the most impossibly gifted photographer Life Magazine has ever had. So, when reporter Aileen (Minami Hinase) pesters him about doing a story about industrial poisoning in Minamata, Eugene is predictably evasive. Yet tormented by nightmares of his wartime experiences, Eugene looks again at the photos Aileen brought him. Convinced by what he sees, he crashes an editorial meeting and demands he be put back in the field to cover the story. On the sole condition that this is done-off-the books, Life Magazine’s chief editor, Robert Hayes (Bill Nighy) sends Eugene to Japan. However, the reality of what awaits Eugene is something more personal than he could ever have imagined…
...an attractively alarming drama which never loses sight of its focus.
As is often with the case with biopics of talented artists, the cinematography of ‘Minamata’ is perfectly matched for its subject. For a documentary photographer who is monochromatic to his bone marrow, director Andrew Levitas selects his colours for emotional effect. Blue is colour of nightmares, orange is the stabbing light of reality and green is the decaying sense of conscience that Eugene thought he’d long suffocated. Reinvigorated a balanced palette establishes itself when he barters for the chance to photograph the village of Minamata in Japan. Assuring the ever-excellent Bill Nighy who is sporting a spot-on American accent, a bewigged and bedraggled Johnny Depp as Eugene assures him that ” I would never disappoint you. Again” with a single shot glass distillation of what will probably happen next.
Moving to Japan, the reverence and humble hospitality of a fishing village blighted by mercury poisoning has an instantly sobering effect on Eugene. Embraced as an ally in their dispute with the local chemical plant, there is nowhere for the old Eugene to hide. In one of several truly memorable scenes, where he’s forced to care for a villager’s deformed daughter who can only breathe, Eugene starts to wander away from the familiar safety of being irresponsible.
In a role that genuinely feels like the best thing that Johnny Depp has done in years, ‘Minamata’ feels like an actor rediscovering himself as much his character does. The tics and idioms of a barely functioning alcoholic are all there but this is mercifully no Captain Jack Sparrow Nor is this a biopic of an all-conquering white saviour. Eugene Smith knew how to take photographs and in mixing his real-life work and the cine film of locals, ‘Minamata’ is a seamless blend of the dramatic and documentarian. With a fabulous score by legendary Ryuichi Sakamoto, this is an attractively alarming drama which never loses sight of its focus or the real implications that still live on.
Don’t be afraid to let this one touch you.5